By Katie Roiger

Rather than let a worldwide pandemic get it down, the Mankato Symphony Orchestra is finding new ways to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

“We’re prolonging the celebrations into 2021-2022 because of COVID,” said Executive Director Bethel Balge. “It’s nice for us that we get to celebrate for two years!”

When first faced with national social distancing recommendations, the MSO’s decision makers were concerned that their musical ensemble would have to shutter its doors indefinitely. With some creative thinking and rearranging, they managed to turn their roster of events into virtual performances, intimate concerts and even a few large-scale productions.

Submitted Photo - Mankato Symphony Orchestra New Standards concert
Submitted Photo – Mankato Symphony Orchestra New Standards concert

Thinking creatively

Because concert halls packed with music lovers might be a lot to ask during a national health crisis, the MSO is choosing to resurrect a blast from the past type of performance – a blast from the 18th century past, that is. Back in the 1700s, concerts were often cozy, living room affairs featuring only a few string musicians. As smaller crowds are currently recommended, chamber music was the MSO’s natural choice.

We’re prolonging the celebrations into 2021-2022 because of COVID. It’s nice for us that we get to celebrate for two years! Bethel Balge

The MSO’s Music on the Hill chamber music series begins Nov. 1 with selections from classical heavyweights Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn, as well as the more recent female composers Nadia Boulanger and Joan Tower.

“Those concerts are easier to prepare for, because it’s usually just a group of three to five performers,” Balge said.

The performances will be held at Bethany Lutheran College’s Trinity Chapel. While the concerts are currently closed to live audiences, all performances will be recorded for virtual attendance.

The orchestra has had previous practice in virtual concerts. On Sept. 13, the MSO’s musicians gathered at a local farm to perform a tribute to Helen Baumgartner, an MSO violinist who passed away this June.

“Her family was there, but it was a private gathering because of the COVID situation,” Balge said.

In order to open it up to the larger community, the concert was broadcast at 2 p.m. that day and later linked to the MSO’s Facebook page.

Submitted Photo - The Mankato Symphony Orchestra's performance of Handel's Messiah at the Good Counsel chapel in 2019
Submitted Photo – The Mankato Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Good Counsel chapel in 2019

Future plans

Besides offering its chamber music series, the MSO hopes to return to in-person orchestral ensembles in the spring of 2021. Two large-scale concerts are currently in the works. In March, the Orchestra will perform its first-ever video game music performance, called “High Score.” Held at the Saint Peter High School auditorium, the lineup is a rousing mix of medleys from Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, Legend of Zelda and more.

[Classical music] is exciting, it’s thrilling, it can be sad and thoughtful and also erupt with all kinds of emotion that you just don’t get from other kinds of music. Benjamin Findley

“Someone on our board is himself a composer of video game music, and some of his music will be featured,” said Balge. “It should be an interesting mix!”

A concert planned for April will be a reprisal of “Earth’s Exaltation,” a performance that was cancelled during 2020’s spring shutdowns. This concert concert will be held at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Mankato.

Board president Benjamin Findley described the featured pieces as “environmentally-driven classical music.” The MSO chose selections from European composers that best captured the beauty and grandeur of nature, including Beethoven’s spring-like Symphony No. 6.

Submitted Photo - Mankato Symphony Orchestra - Bernice Strom directing the Messiah in 1950, John Dennis playing violin
Submitted Photo – Mankato Symphony Orchestra – Bernice Strom directing the Messiah in 1950, John Dennis playing violin

Music for everyone

By choosing an eclectic and exciting mix of melodies, Findley and his fellow board members hope that those who think they have to be classical music buffs to attend a symphony orchestra concert will think again.

“Too many people get caught up in thinking ‘Oh, classical music – that’s what Grandma and Grandpa used to listen to,’” said Findley. “No, it’s what we all listen to! It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it can be sad and thoughtful and also erupt with all kinds of emotion that you just don’t get from other kinds of music.”

To make classical music more accessible, the MSO frequently brings in guest artists. Most recently in February 2019, the organization brought the New Standards acoustic pop trio to perform against the orchestral background.

Our season ticket holders’ age range in the past has been fairly high. I’m hoping to lower that median age range of our average concertgoer. Benjamin Findley

That’s not the only way that the MSO likes to jazz up its performances. For the past few years, the orchestra has organized a special Christmas production of Raymond Brigg’s “The Snowman.” The silent children’s cartoon is a classic tale of a young boy whose snowman comes to life and flies him to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. While the animated movie plays on a big screen, the orchestra performs its whimsical soundtrack live.

Submitted Photo - Mankato Symphony Orchestra 2020-2021
Submitted Photo – Mankato Symphony Orchestra 2020-2021

Once the danger of COVID dies down, the MSO’s board plans to find new ways to mix music with the visual arts. After the success of “The Snowman,” Findley said he and other decision-makers would like to try a soundtrack performance for another film. Leonard Bernstein’s “Peter and the Wolf” is a natural choice, since the composer’s “symphonic fairy tale” has a cartoon feature film narrated by David Bowie. Findley said he also hopes that the playful score will appeal to a younger audience.

“To watch young children light up while watching a movie and listening to classical music is just a joy to see,” he said. “Our season ticket holders’ age range in the past has been fairly high. I’m hoping to lower that median age range of our average concertgoer.”

[Music] can truly warm your soul and keep you going every day. People can connect to it, and when you can connect to it, you can connect to others even if you’re not in the same space. Benjamin Findley

For those who can’t wait till next year for more concerts, or simply want to add variety to their weekend travels, Mankato’s KMSU radio station is broadcasting archived MSO performances every first Saturday of the month at 3 p.m.

In a time where in-person concerts are difficult to offer, the radio renditions and virtual performances allow the whole state to enjoy music together.

“[Music] can truly warm your soul and keep you going every day,” Findley said. “That’s what’s so great about it. People can connect to it, and when you can connect to it, you can connect to others even if you’re not in the same space.”

Author

  • Katie Roiger

    is a freelance writer who works out of the Greater Mankato Area. She enjoys exploring every town she visits and knowing where to find the best Mexican restaurant in any 40-mile radius.

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