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Battle of the bands: SPCO, Minnesota Orchestra fests

January is setting up as a festival of festivals — pitting the St.

January is setting up as a festival of festivals — pitting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra in a quest to see how many top-ranked performers can be assembled at the same time and how many different theme-linked programs can be presented over a short period.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s “International Chamber Orchestra Festival,” which launches today, is bringing four major chamber orchestras — one from San Francisco, the rest from Europe — to the Twin Cities for four weeks of concerts that include 17 different programs.

But there’s more. Next week, the Minnesota Orchestra launches its “Bernstein Festival” with the first of a series of concerts that explore Leonard Bernstein’s output as a prodigious composer for the stage and concert hall, plus his work as an inspiring musical explainer and proselytizer.

The key event of the three-week festival will be rare professional performances of Bernstein’s “Mass,” which uses some 250 performers, including an augmented orchestra, a massive mixed chorus and boys choir, 20 theater singers/actors and a company of dancers. The platform at Orchestra Hall will be extended 21 feet into the auditorium for the two performances, the largest temporary stage expansion since the hall was built.

Inevitably, the competing festivals will tempt local classical-going patrons to pick and choose — as if that doesn’t go on all the time. But it appears that there are plenty of patrons to go around. Several of the SPCO festival concerts were sold out early in December (for a recent MinnPost Arts Arena story on ticket sales, go here) and a Minnesota Orchestra official says ticket sales for the Bernstein festival have been strong.

“Offer quality, interesting events and people come — sometimes it seems that simple,” said Minnesota Orchestra spokeswoman Gwen Pappas.

The overlap of the two festivals is mostly coincidence. The Minnesota Orchestra has a short history of putting on festivals in January. Last year it was a music-in-cinema festival, and in 2007 there was a short Beethoven festival. The SPCO festival, which has been in the planning stages for two years, involved not only a kickoff to a 50th year anniversary but also scheduling details with all the participating orchestras.

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Next year, both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO will collaborate on a joint festival focusing on the music of Stravinsky. It will take place — once again — in January. “We’ve found that January festivals seem to be appealing to audiences that want to shake the winter doldrums” Pappas said.

One thing’s for certain: The behind-the-scene people who handle logistics at the two orchestras will be dead tired by the end of the month.

Five orchestras, 17 different programs
Here’s a look at the two festivals, starting with the one that begins first: the International Chamber Music Festival.

The idea for it came out of an effort to find a splashy way to mark the SPCO’s 50th anniversary, says Sarah Lutman, who co-chaired a task force for the anniversary and more recently became the orchestra’s president and managing director. At first, the task force thought about more conventional ways to mark a big anniversary — such as a major world tour.

“But then we realized that this community is the SPCO’s main focus, where our musicians live and where people have come to our concerts for 50 years,” Lutman said. “So why not do something spectacular for them?”

A festival of chamber orchestras also was seen as a way to demonstrate how the SPCO’s unique use of “artistic partners” instead of a traditional full-time music director has forged relationships with other ensembles.

For example, this week’s visiting group is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, a pan-national band made up of musicians from 15 European countries. When it was organized in 1981, one of the orchestra’s founding members was conductor Douglas Boyd, who also is one of the current artistic partners of the SPCO.

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Courtesy of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe opens the SPCO’s International Chamber Orchestra Festival, starting today and running through January.

Similarly, pianist and conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard, another SPCO artistic partner, has a long musical association with the London Sinfonietta, the visiting orchestra featured in next week’s concerts.

And conductor Nicholas McGegan, who has been closely associated with the SPCO in a number of ways over the past 20 years, is the founder of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a period-instrument ensemble that will be winding up the festival with concerts on Jan. 29-30.

An intense calendar
Next week’s festival calendar will be particularly intense, since it includes performances by the SPCO, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with the latter group also sticking around for a week of concerts between Jan. 22-25.

The festival includes a variety of formats and spans more than three centuries of musical literature. Some concerts will be stand-alone performances by each of the five orchestras, including the SPCO. Others will feature one orchestra before the intermission and another on the second half of the program. And some, such as this Saturday’s evening performance, will feature a co-mingled ensemble from several orchestras — in Saturday’s example, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the SPCO in a concert that features Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, among other selections.

The chamber festival also uses nine different performing venues scattered across the Twin Cities, from Eden Prairie to Stillwater. For a complete chart of the festival, go here.

London Sinfonietta
Courtesy of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Members of the London Sinfonietta, which performs next week during the SPCO’s International Chamber Orchestra Festival.

For McGegan, who routinely flits between conducting gigs with various orchestras, the idea of showing Minnesotans a variety of chamber bands is particularly attractive.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “I’m a great believer, needless to say, in chamber orchestras — particularly in tough economic times. They’re simply more flexible. And with this festival, people are going to see orchestras that are very similar in size, but quite different in musical perspectives.”

It’s a big party, too
Ironically, McGegan’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is the one ensemble that won’t be able to co-mingle on stage with musicians from the other groups, since the Philharmonia’s players use period instruments.

“We play at different pitches (from modern instruments), so we can’t play together,” McGegan said. “But we party at the same pitch.”

Indeed, Lutman said the musicians are looking forward to the social aspect of the festival.

“You’ll get more than a merit badge if you make all the social events,” she said. “I think even people who aren’t tied in with the SPCO on a social level will get a sense of what the spirit is like in our field of work. Clearly, the SPCO is treasured by audiences here, but they don’t have an opportunity to see others who do the same work.”

The enthusiasm for the festival, according to Lutman, is reflected in how smoothly it was assembled and by the willingness of backers, including foundations and corporate sponsors, to fund it.

“The cost of all this is about $1 million and it’s all paid for,” Lutman said, adding: “It’s a lot of work, especially for the production staff. But how often do you get to do something like this?”

A highlight? That depends on what you want, since everything from Bach to Boulez can be found in the festival. For me, however, the joint concert by the London Sinfonietta and the SPCO on Jan. 16 is particularly intriguing, because it features the U.S. premiere of “Songs of Wars I Have Seen,” a kind of theatrical “happening” based on the writings of Gertrude Stein by the way-out German composer Heiner Goebbels.

To ease the culture shock, the same concert also features a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) with Pierre-Laurent Aimard conducting from the keyboard. Talk about contrasts.

Minnesota Orchestra remembers Lenny
What the Minnesota Orchestra’s Bernstein festival lacks in visiting groups of musicians is compensated for in the compositional breadth of an American icon: Leonard Bernstein. Many people — including this gray-haired writer — were introduced to classical music through Bernstein’s televised young people’s programs and the broadcast concerts of his sweaty conducting moments with the New York Philharmonic.

Then came “West Side Story,” that masterpiece of tri-tones, though Bernstein had already shown his mastery of Broadway with “On the Town.” And then, of course, “Candide.” All this, plus Bernstein’s flamboyant personality, overshadowed his work as a concert-orchestra composer — though that will also be on display during the Minnesota Orchestra’s festival that gets under way next week.

A chart of the orchestra’s three-week festival can be found here.

And to read an excellent warts-and-all essay on Bernstein by New Yorker Magazine critic Alex Ross, go here.

The festival begins next week with alternating concerts, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, that showcase Bernstein’s work for the concert hall and the theater stage. The concerts on Jan. 15 and 17 feature stage music, including selections from “Candide,” “On the Town,” “West Side Story,” and such lesser-known efforts like “Wonderful Town,” “Trouble in Tahiti” and “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” The vocal soloists are stage veterans Christiane Noll, Rachel York and Doug LaBrecque.

Leonard Bernstein
Photo by Arthur Umboh
The Minnesota Orchestra will pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein, left, starting next week.

A single concert on Jan. 16 focuses on music for the concert hall, including a performance of Bernstein’s youthful Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), plus an orchestrated version of his Clarinet Sonata, and a work for flute and orchestra titled “Halil.” The soloists from the orchestra’s ranks include Principal Clarinetist Burt Hara and Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel.

The symphony, which established Bernstein’s formidable classical-composer credentials while he was in his early 20s, also showed his ambition — it’s a symphony for orchestra and vocalist, in the tradition of Beethoven and Mahler. The soloist for this performance is mezzo Susanne Mentzer.

The monumental, perplexing ‘Mass’
But the program festival-goers will be talking about is the full-blown performances of “Mass” that take place on Jan. 22-23. The work dates from 1971, when Bernstein was being ridiculed by writers like Tom Wolfe for what was derided as “radical chic” posturing. Huge in every way, it’s seldom done professionally, though VocalEssence, the local professional vocal group, presented excerpts from it in a concert last November.

Bob Neu, the orchestra’s vice president and general manager, is staging the work that will be conducted by Vänskä.

“It’s a hard work to describe because it is so unique unto itself,” Neu said. “It’s not a musical, not an opera and not a Mass. It’s all of those — and a dance recital.”

Neu said the Vänskä’s interest in doing a Bernstein festival — which comes at the tail end of national festivities recognizing Bernstein’s 90th birthday in 2008 — evolved into the idea of staging “Mass.”

“We thought, well why not?” Neu recalled. “We have fantastic choruses in this town, great actor-singers and the James Sewell Ballet, which is doing the dance segments. The resources are all here.”

The Bernstein story
Inevitably, any festival about Bernstein also includes a look at his forceful, exuberant personality — what Ross in his New Yorker article describes as a “majestically ebullient self.” That aspect will be provided in a series of family and children’s concerts narrated by Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter. She has been here several times in the past, including as recently as last April.

“It’s turned into a kind of career,” Bernstein said last week during a telephone interview from her home in New York.

Jamie Bernstein
Photo by Steven J. Sherman
Jamie Bernstein

“What’s surprising to me is that it began ever so modestly and then turned into a life’s work,” she said. “My father’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, proposed to our family that somebody should do some young people’s concerts like my dad did on TV — except about my dad and his music. So I volunteered to write the script and Michael Barrett, my dad’s assistant conductor for many years, would do the musical end of things.

“It evolved into a whole number of different programs that have been taken all over the world. And I’ve had a great time — though my plan is that when I get tired of running around like a chicken with its head cut off, I’ll sit down and write a few books.”

For now, however, Jamie Bernstein says she looks forward to the Minnesota festival and to meeting again with orchestra musicians, some of whom worked with her father.

“I’m particularly thrilled that they’re doing ‘Mass,’ because I think its time has finally come,” she said. “Back in the 1970s, people were perplexed by it. But today, nobody has a problem with imbedding things like rock music into a concert-hall piece.

“We always have to be grateful to the envelope-pushers,” she added. “And my dad was certainly one of them.”

David Hawley, the author of a half-dozen plays and two nonfiction books, writes about the arts and other subjects. He can be reached at dhawley [at] minnpost [dot] com.