One of the civic leaders posing with shovels when ground was broken on the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts was George Latimer, then mayor of St. Paul. Now in semi-retirement, he continues to promote the city as a point of personal pride -- as when, for example, he brags to old friends from law school. Or when he fires off a few hundred words in a letter to MPR.
Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer photographed in 2008
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen
"Our dream was for the Ordway to enliven a downtown that had been in decline," Latimer wrote this week. "Nine million visitors to the Ordway later, I can say our hopes for that patch of dirt we were shoveling have been exceeded.
"Downtown St. Paul is different because of the Ordway. And the arts are different too. The Minnesota Opera has become a leader in its field. Last year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and its most recent opera was reviewed in the New York Times. I hope my old classmates read what the Times' music critic had to say about the new opera that premiered in downtown St. Paul.
"But what about the labor lockout at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra? What about the future of St. Paul's cultural ambassadors? Well, we seem to be living in an age of lockouts, and none of us are too fond of it. The Wild, the Timberwolves and the Vikings were all locked out in the last two years. Their seasons were disrupted, but they all returned to playing. The same will eventually happen with the SPCO, a point on which management and labor agree.
"Unlike other troubled orchestras across the country, the SPCO has no debt, hasn't taken large draws from its endowment and doesn't own a large building it must run and maintain. However, it did run a sizable deficit last year, its first in more than a decade. So to stay out of trouble - indeed, to continue to grow in quality - its new contract must secure a solid financial base.
"Back in the 1980s, a 'sense of place' was what we hoped the Ordway would deliver. From the day the doors opened it has been a Twin Cities favorite, a gathering place that shows off what is beautiful about St. Paul. It is also the No. 1 cultural destination for public school students, the home of a great Children's Festival, and the state's oldest arts organization, The Schubert Club. One sign of the Ordway's success is the lack of free nights on its calendar.
"Before long this lockout will be over, a blur amidst the other lockouts of this era. By then, the Ordway's new concert hall will be underway, and the finances of those performing at the Ordway will be strengthened by a more robust endowment. The effort to accomplish both of those goals is this generation's contribution to what we built in the '80s. We faced obstacles back then, too, but we persisted. The Ordway has been a winner for this community for decades, particularly for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Their success will continue."
Posted at 11:58 AM on March 8, 2013
by David Cazares
Fernando Aceves photo
For the audio version of this profile, click here:
When Lila Downs pours herself into her music, she doesn't think much about her mixed heritage.
After all, Downs is very much like her mother, a Mixtec Indian from Mexico, and spends much of her time in Oaxaca, where she was born. Though Downs went to school in Roseville, she has a deep connection with Mexico that comes through in her work.
That's especially true of her latest recording, "Pecados y Milagros," which just won her a Grammy for best regional Mexican album.
But during a recent visit to St. Paul, Downs was touched when someone told her how much she was like her Scottish-American father, longtime University of Minnesota art professor Allen Downs.
"That was a beautiful thing to hear because my heritage, the Mexican side, has been the side that people have adhered to, as well as myself," Downs said recently from Mexico. "So it's beautiful to hear that when they see my father in me."
In a concert Sunday at the University of Minnesota's Ted Mann Concert Hall, Downs will celebrate the life, art and career of her father, who died years before she launched her career. He taught for more than 20 years and started the university's first international study program, Winter Quarter in Mexico, for art students. After the show, an exhibition on her father's work will be held at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery.
For Downs, the show is another homecoming and a reminder that she can feel at home in Minnesota, where she has many friends and is adored by members of the state's growing Mexican community.
"This last time that I was there I really understood why I am who I am," she said. "I am very Minnesotan. Over the years, I've found all these you know characteristics in my personality that I always thought were characteristics from my Indian background here in Mexico. But I think it's hard for me to tell which one they're coming from because they are very similar in the sense that they're very responsible, kind of concerned about the other and respectful, careful."
To hear Downs sing, however, is to absorb the diversity of Mexico's rich musical culture, from folk music to modern pop. She has long been inspired by the late Chavela Vargas, whose heart-wrenching renditions of ranchera songs by composers like Jose Alfredo Jimenez touched hearts from Latin America to Spain.
For a long time, Downs didn't want to touch songs about loving, forgetting and dying over love because the emotion inherent in them was too painful. On her latest album, inspired by paintings that represented the miracles and sins of the Mexican people, she captures the joy and pain of everyday life, from moments of celebration, to hard times and heartache.
"I think the reason I kind of stray away from that and I think other people do as well is we can't deal with this emotion of opening our souls so much that it hurts," Downs said. "We have the blues in the U.S. which is similar and you can only deal with the blues in a certain moment or you want a glass of whiskey when you're listening. The same happens with this music. I think that this album brought me back to Chavela.
"People were crying in the audiences in places that I was performing here in Mexico, places that I wasn't able to visit before that have been having a very hard time recently."
Mexican audiences responded with emotion to Downs' performances in part because many people there are depressed about the violence that increasingly is taking place in much of the country.
"We've been touring quite a bit here and we've been going to some places that are very dangerous," she said. "So it's been scary for us as well. But at the same time, you know that what you're doing is causing some kind of relief to people who are frustrated and don't know what do with the situation."
For Downs, the Grammy award validated her frequent efforts to tell the stories of ordinary people, work that she said "has blossomed into flowers."
After years of focusing on folkloric sounds, she's ready for a change of pace, a return to the feelings she explored when singing boleros.
"I've been kind of nostalgic for the other root of mine, which is the U.S. and the standards," Downs said. "The jazz standards are so important to me so I've been working on that. Maybe because our album was so kind of rooted in this tradition of baring your soul through the music because you need to, you need cry somehow over what is happening to you.
"Now, I'm ready for bossa nova and Cole Porter to take over in my life."(2 Comments)
At the start of his 45th year as artistic director of VocalEssence, Philip Brunelle shows no signs of slowing down.
"Choral music is just a great way to express yourself and there are thousands upon thousands of choral pieces out there - I will never run out of music to do," said Brunelle in a phone interview this afternoon. "So that's why, although I'm at my 45th year, I can easily see how I can get to the 90th and still come up with new things to say."
Brunelle says in some sense VocalEssence's 45th season is like all the seasons that have come before it, in that it's a celebration of Minnesota's rich choral heritage.
Photo by Ann Marsden
The season begins with a joint performance with St. Olaf Choir in October, and will feature the world premiere of Jonathan Dove's "There Was A Child." Brunelle says Dove is exceptionally talented at writing for the human voice.
"Some people would write for the voice and it sounds like a tuba - he just makes music that sings," attests Brunelle. "And when I saw the text... it was commissioned by a family in memory of their son who had died, and they wanted something that was inspiring, that talked about the importance of life - so he's taken all sorts of different poets to create a multi movement piece. I guarantee the audience is going to be moved by the way he's put this together."
The season also includes a cabaret featuring local talents Greta Oglesby, Simone Perrin, Dieter Bierbrauer and Bradley Greenwald, and will highlight music that the performers particularly love to sing.
Brunelle says this year's Christmas production will serve as a simultaneous celebration of Mexican culture and a tribute to Dave Brubeck, centering around Brubeck's piece "La Fiesta de la Posada."
"Brubeck grew up in a California town that was mostly Mexican," Brunelle explained, "and he loved the rhythm and melodies. When we did it before we did it with orchestra, but Brubeck really wanted it with a mariachi band, so that's how we're going to do it this time. Dan Chouinard will play the piano part that Brubeck originally performed."
Photo courtesy VocalEssence
Probably the most unusual concert of the season, according to Brunelle, is this year's Witness program, "Stomp and Sing."
"There is this group of African-Americans that live on these islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia called the Gullah. The Gullah people never went on the mainland; they stayed on these islands and kept their own identity. So when they sing spirituals it's very different from what you hear on the mainland. In Africa they would have used drums, but the Gullah use these poles that they stomp to keep the rhythm, and they create a mesmerizing sound."
Melanie DeMore, who describes herself as a "vocal activist," will lead the performance.
"She's not a first alto, she's not a second - she's a fourth alto, she's like a BASS," exclaimed Brunelle. "She's amazing and I guarantee the audience will all be on their feet clapping and stomping with her."
Composer John Rutter
Photo courtesy VocalEssence
In March VocalEssence will host British composer John Rutter, who recently penned the anthem for the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. It will be his first time back with the ensemble in ten years.
"John Rutter is the most performed choral composer from England in the USA - not just at Christmas but all throughout the year," said Brunelle. "Anybody who has sung in a choir has sung John Rutter's music."
The concert will be split between John Rutter's own works and music by his favorite romantic composers.
The 45th season ends in April with a concert celebrating the work of college choirs, specifically those of Luther, Gustavus Adolfus, St. Thomas and Bethel colleges. They'll perform Tchaikovsky's The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
"Listeners who go to concerts all know Tchaikovsky from a symphony or the Nutcracker Suite - they don't associate him with choral music," said Brunelle. "And it's because we always want to open those windows and stretch folks, I thought this is a great time for people to know that Tchaikovsky wrote some beautiful choral music. We'll have almost 400 singers combined and with Tchaikovsky, the more singers, the better."
You can find out all the details of VocalEssence's 45th season here.