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New Minneapolis music series mixes contemporary classical with comedy, poetry and more

September 13, 2018

Violist Sam Bergman doesn’t like sticking labels on classical music. And he’s certainly not keen on explaining what particular concerts are about, especially before audiences have the opportunity to hear them.

“I’m a fan of letting the audience tell you what your program was about,” he said.

In the world of contemporary classical music, that makes Bergman an outlier. “Theming” is rife in the classical industry these days, with marketing departments hunting everywhere for cutesy hooks to hang their social media pitches on. Few concerts, it seems, can exist without a label plastered over them: “Beethoven the Revolutionary!” “Bach to the Future!” “Bernstein on Broadway!”

Bergman is having none of it. Together with Minnesota-based soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw, he’s launching the new Outpost series of concerts, which deliberately avoids prepackaging music into neat thematic parcels. “There is no specific theme to the performance unless you perceive one,” reads the Outpost mission statement. “In which case, that’s the theme and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It’s a bold message. And Outpost intends to be bold in other areas, too, with the goal of shredding boundaries between art forms, mashing up various genres into single satisfying evenings. The series kicks off Friday with a selection of six chamber music pieces by 21st-century composers including Judd Greenstein, Jocelyn Hagen and Sarah Kirkland Snider, intercutting them with performances by comedian Brandi Brown, poet Taiyon J. Coleman and actor Steven Epp.

“Performance doesn’t need to be one medium, one discipline, start to finish,” Bergman said in an interview last week. “There are ways to bridge those divides.”

A more casual classical

Bergman has proved adept at bridging those divides. A violist with the Minnesota Orchestra since 2000, he also hosts the orchestra’s popular Inside the Classics series and its Symphonic Adventures programs for high school audiences. Both initiatives aim to demystify classical music, making it less intimidating for those uncomfortable with the traditional concert hall experience.

Outpost shares the goal of demystifying classical music, not least by staging its opening event at Minneapolis’ Hook and Ladder Theater — aka “the Hook” — a listening room better known for hosting jazz and rock acts.

Henneman Shaw admires the vibe of that laid-back venue. “I’ve heard quite a few very good jazz groups there,” she said. And each time she found herself thinking “the sound is so good in here — close to the performers, but not too close.”

“The great thing about the Hook is that it’s such a community center,” Bergman added. “It’s a nonprofit. It’s there to promote the work of artists, not to rake in the dollars.”

A native of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky., Henneman Shaw cites the influence of TV variety shows she watched as a kid. These programs featured “a bunch of different singers and instruments I’d never seen before, and people playing in different styles,” remembered the esteemed soprano and vocal teacher. “I liked the fast-paced element of that, and hearing words between the music. There’s something very natural about not having a continuous wash of sound, but to punctuate that with spoken word.”

This illuminates the thinking behind the inaugural Outpost event’s cross-genre mix of music, poetry, comedy and readings. But the series’ creators stress that intuition guided the programming more so than intellect or personal histories.

“It was Carrie and me talking to one another about pieces of music that we were passionate about,” Bergman explained. “And then throwing out names of spoken-word artists who we thought would be into doing something different, who wouldn’t be spooked by us saying we’re not really sure what this is going to be.”

A true artistic Outpost

Gathering musicians for the inaugural Outpost was relatively easy, given Henneman Shaw and Bergman’s extensive musical connections in the Twin Cities. “It was just a question of asking some of our favorite musicians, ‘Hey, would you take a chance on us and be part of this?’ ” Bergman said. “We’re going to get the very best people available for every show.” (Henneman Shaw and Bergman will also perform this Friday.)

It’s a risky endeavor, but these organizers feel there’s no better place in the United States to stage a series like Outpost. “People who grow up in Minnesota don’t realize how rare it is in America to be in a city where people still go out to live performances,” said Bergman, originally hailing from Philadelphia. “Here they do. There’s a vibrant music culture, a storytelling culture, a theater culture. We’re so fortunate in a city this size to be able to tap into those audiences.”

That faith in the Twin Cities arts community is reflected in the series’ title. “We wanted to find a name that would speak both to what Minnesota is and also the somewhat out-of-the-box nature of the performances we are looking to create,” Bergman said.

“To the rest of the country Minnesota is viewed as this weird caricature, this place where it’s perpetually winter,” he continued. “We wanted to play into that misnomer, but also plant a flag and showcase it.”

Henneman Shaw relishes the irony of the Outpost metaphor. “I like the idea that there are a whole bunch of artists here,” she said, “kind of riding their horses up to this one place, where they dismount and start playing.”

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.

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