Editor's Note: This piece by Nikki Tundel is part of a series called Minnesota Mix. Minnesota Mix is a project of Minnesota Public Radio News that examines the way youth and ethnic diversity are influencing Minnesota arts. Enjoy...
Mexican composer Jorge Cozatl directs the Burnsville High School Concert Choir on March 9, 2012. Cozatl is part of the Cantare program, which celebrates Mexico's musical traditions and shares them with students in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel
BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- It's said that music is the language of the soul. But for composer Jorge Cozatl, it is also the key to hearing and understanding another culture.
Cozatl, a native of Mexico City, is an artist-in-residence at Burnsville High School, where he works with choral students on timbre and pitch. But his main mission is to teach the students about his homeland.
"This is a huge opportunity to share not just music, but culture, too" said Cozatl. "I want to tell them about my country. And I'm doing that with songs."
A cultural ambassador for Mexico, Cozatl came to Minnesota for Cantare!, Spanish for "I will sing." The year-long project, the brainchild of conductor Philip Brunelle, artistic director and founder of the Twin Cities-based choral group VocalEssence, pairs Mexican composers with student choirs to create works that bridge cultures.
Brunelle said he started the program because he was frustrated with the media coverage of Mexico, which he said too often focuses on the U.S.-Mexico border and the illicit drug trade. He wanted to offer Minnesota students another view of Mexico -- one that showcases its cultural and musical traditions.
"I'm hoping that, through this program, Vocal Essence can make just a little dent in helping people to have a very favorable and positive idea about our neighbor country to the south," Brunelle said.
Student Kristina Butler rehearses with the Burnsville High School Concert Choir on March 9, 2012. She is part of the Cantare program, which pairs Mexican composers with Minnesota students.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel
On this spring day, Cozatl leads the Burnsville High School concert choir through rehearsal. At the end of his stay, his students will perform the original choral work in Spanish.
A big hurdle for the young Minnesotans is pronunciation -- especially mastering the different vowel sounds. Cozatl frequently returns to the fundamentals, sounding out their constant equivalents in Spanish: ah-ay-ee-oh-oo.
"Since he's not from around here, he knows that in Minnesota we say our o's like two separate letters," said Nick Nelson, 18. "It really was fascinating to have him come in and say, 'Oh. You guys are saying that weird so you should say it this way.' "
Performing a song in Spanish is a new challenge for Nelson, a senior who studies German. But he knows that singing in the composer's language is essential to capturing the essence of the song.
"Learning it in this different language, it seems more real," he said.
Classmate Zach Zambrano, 18, agrees.
"It's more pure in that way," he said. "You know, if it's a song about Mexico or whatever it is, it's gonna be more impactful in that other language even though you might not understand every word that they're saying. But just thinking this is the Hispanic culture, this is the Mexican culture, it hits more at your heart, I think."
Choir Director Martha Schmidt leads choral practice at Burnsville High School in Burnsville, Minn., on March 9, 2012. Her students are learning a song about the Aztec view of the afterlife.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel
Besides learning to sing in Spanish, students are also learning about Mexico and its mixed heritage. The song they're working on depicts the ancient Aztec view of the afterlife.
"It speaks about the place where dead people go," said Cozatl, who composed the piece for the project. His goal was to offer Americans a different way of looking at life -- and death. The students are still processing the nuances of the work.
"It goes, 'Que, que dura de mi?' " explains student Kristina Butler, 16. "The phrase means, 'What will become of my body after this happens?' "
For another student, Nick Armstrong, 18, the song is about renewal.
"It's talking about more of a lifecycle -- and then actually dying and becoming one with the earth," he said. "We tend to think of death as grave and sad, where in Mexican culture it's like a rebirth."
The final piece speaks to that.
"It's so glorious," Nelson said. "It's like, you've reached it and now here's paradise kind of thing. Oh, I love that last piece."
Mexican composer Jorge Cozatl directs a rehearsal of the Burnsville, Minn., high school choir on March 9, 2012. Cozatl is part of the Cantare program, which aims to share the cultural and musical traditions of Mexico with students in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel
The members of the Burnsville High School choir work their way through the sections of their new song.
For some students, the collaboration with Cozatl has changed the way they look at the world. Nelson said he's become much more interested in what happens beyond the borders of Burnsville.
"Everybody needs to see other kinds of cultures," he said. "Will you look at a country and be like, 'OK. That's, like, weird. What are they doing over there? ' But now you can say, 'Oh, now I understand why they do this. OK. Cool.' "
The Cantare! project will culminate with a concert for the community. The students will perform May 22 at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.
Q: When is a birthday party a terrifying event?
A: When it's the subject of a Harold Pinter play.
Pinter's "The Birthday Party" - which runs through May 13 at the Jungle Theater - follows down and out boarder Stanley Webber. Two strangers arrive at his place of lodging, insisting it's his birthday, and they proceed to throw him a party.
According to the Jungle Theater, "After a few glasses of whiskey and a game of blindman's bluff, Stanley's innocuous birthday party turns into a totalitarian nightmare in this deeply political and timeless classic. One of the great black comedies of the 20th century, Harold Pinter's play is at once funny and menacing in its study of the individual's imperative need for resistance."
Critics, while they appear to enjoy the ambiguity and menace contained within this production, are decidedly mixed. Read on for excerpts of reviews, or click on the links to read them in full.
The cast of "The Birthday Party" by Harold Pinter, on stage at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis through May 13
Plays like this are more about the journey than the destination. Rather than clearly conveying a narrative from beginning to end, the objective of a successful staging of a play like "The Birthday Party" is for the audience to become sufficiently engaged with the characters so that they can connect the wide spaces between the dots on their own.
In this respect, [Director Joel] Sass' handsome production mostly succeeds.
It was dark and it was funny, yes, but it was also beautiful, eerie, ironic, chilling, surprising, and sad. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen, yet at the same time all-too familiar. Which, I suppose, is what everyone had been trying to tell me before: You can't really describe a Pinter play. You have to experience it.
The danger with The Birthday Party would be to play the ominousness too overtly. This wouldn't work; the play would quickly become one overblown moment after another. Director Joel Sass wisely avoids this and keeps things zipping comically along. He has also had the great good sense to cast the delightful Claudia Wilkens, who plays Meg with sweet gusto and a surprising amount of sexual zeal. Her work is nicely balanced by Richard Ooms (Wilkens's real life husband) who plays Petey with lumbering charm. Petey seems to be the play's only genuinely happy character, and we adore him. These two anchor the play satisfyingly. As the putative assassins Tony Papenfuss and Martin Ruben energize the play admirably as they circle and harass our hapless hero.
Although this Birthday Party doesn't quite pack the punch that one might hope for, it's an incredibly rich play that has much to offer our contemporary moment. After all, exploring the ways repression - in all of its myriad forms - barges into our private lives remains of the utmost importance.
Playing the work this way is not an unreasonable approach, if the aim is a comic aeration. And indeed, Pinter felt he was having a laugh with "The Birthday Party." But this is humor with a threat; our laughter shivers through tension, nervously fending off the ridiculous absurdity that could invade our own lives. Is this really us, we ask? If we stop to examine our lives, would they appear this banal, meaningless and vulnerable?
Those are the questions that Pinter intentionally left unanswered. In the Jungle production, they never feel asked.
Have you seen "The Birthday Party?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.
MPR's Euan Kerr and Stephanie Curtis
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- MPR arts reporter Euan Kerr and Stephanie Curtis the Movie Maven may be mired in the movie doldrums this week, but Minnesota's biggest film event of the year, The Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, opens this Thursday. That's what dominated the dialogue on this edition of Cube Critics.
Trailer for "Italy: Love It or Leave It"
Trailer for "The Ecstasy of Order"
Trailer for "Majority"
Cube Critics was created and produced by Chris Roberts. The Cube Critics theme was written by Chris Roberts and produced by Marc Sanchez. Music performed by Marc Sanchez and Chris Roberts.