Diving into musical adventures is one of Dr. Bethel Balge’s many talents. Three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Balge was living in Germany with her husband and studying music at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts when the Voronezh Orchestra of Russia needed a piano soloist for two back-to-back performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. One of Balge’s professors was asked to play and discovered that he couldn’t attend. Instead, he suggested Balge.
“I didn’t know all of the details,” said Balge, but she remembered that the opportunity to perform with a foreign orchestra seemed far too exciting to pass up.
Balge flew to Moscow, where she expected to receive more instructions. Instead, a contact of the Voronezh Orchestra met Balge at the airport and told her that she needed to get on an overnight train to Voronezh alone.
“At this point, I was getting a little nervous, because I couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet and I was all by myself!” Balge said. “I didn’t sleep very well.”
Fortunately, Balge was able to express her concerns to her contact, who arranged for the orchestra’s manager, its conductor, and the conductor’s father to meet her at the train station in Voronezh. Later, she learned that the Cyrillic concert posters had accidentally listed her as being a male German pianist.
“I don’t know what they thought when an American woman got off the train!” Balge said. “But they were all very warm and friendly.”
At this point, I was getting a little nervous, because I couldn’t read the Cyrillic alphabet and I was all by myself!Dr. Bethel Balge
Despite the uncertain beginning, Balge thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the trip. From touring Voronezh with the welcoming conductor to actually performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in front of two appreciative audiences, it was an experience she would never forget. After the first concert, two more surprises awaited her. A local television station requested to interview Balge backstage and, though the interview was all in Russian, the conductor was able to translate for her. Next, the conductor led her outside to a small ticket booth where the musicians of the evening were lined up to receive their pay.
“The treasurer was handing out all of the rubles in cash, and the ruble is so weak, you got a hundred or more rubles for one dollar,” Balge said. “It was something I had never experienced before, to have a fistful of rubles. It was a fascinating experience.”
Diving into musical adventures is something Balge does best. Since studying music in her undergraduate years, she became the founding artistic director of the Summit Avenue Music Series in New Ulm and the co-director of the ProMusica Minnesota Chamber Music Festival. Her latest musical adventure started just this year: becoming the new executive director of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra.
An early love
Balge’s love of piano first began in her parents’ living room. Music was a treasured part of family life during Balge’s childhood in Milwaukee, Wis.
“My father always had classical music playing in our house as I grew up,” Balge remembered. “It was constantly on, and quite loud!”
Her family’s musical fervor led them to sign her up for piano lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music when she was in sixth grade, and soon Balge’s enthusiasm rivaled theirs.
“I was hooked, especially in high school,” Balge said. “I really loved performing, loved the piano, loved music.”
That love gave her direction in college and graduate school and continued after her marriage. Back home from Germany, Balge began teaching piano at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato and Martin Luther College in New Ulm. Despite a busy work schedule and raising five children, she still found time to earn her doctorate in music from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
Balge said her U of M piano professor, Lydia Artymiw, was instrumental in her success during her time at the university and beyond.
“She was a very important part of my studies, and my career following graduation,” she said.
I was hooked, especially in high school. I really loved performing, loved the piano, loved music.Bethel Balge
Balge also became founding director of the Summit Avenue Music Series in New Ulm, and the co-director of the ProMusica Minnesota Chamber Music Series in Mankato. A key part of her roles involves booking musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to come to Southern Minnesota and perform in both organization’s concerts.
“We knew that we would have an audience,” said Balge regarding the two musical programs. “We got so much positive feedback and people who came said they’d be back the next year.”
In perfect harmony
Around this time, Balge became involved with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, first by performing Robert Schumann’s A Minor Piano Concerto with the company in February of 2017. This concert remains one of her favorite experiences.
“Playing with an orchestra is always such a big event!” Balge said. “It’s a very dynamic organization.”
Soon after, she began serving on the MSO board of directors. When the previous executive director, Hannah Bretz, chose to end her term early in December of 2019, Balge stepped up as the interim director. In May of 2020, the title became official, and Balge took over as the MSO’s twelfth executive director.
The Mankato Symphony offers a unique experience both for the musicians and the audience. I think what it offers is something for everybody.Bethel Balge
Balge’s ongoing participation in ProMusica and the Summit Avenue series gave her the perfect preparation for her MSO duties. Together with the board of directors and the Director of Operations Charlie Leftridge, Balge plans the Orchestra’s schedule. Extensive thought goes in to each year’s lineup of concerts, and it certainly helps to have an executive director who is well-versed in musical history. Balge has so many favorite composers that she can’t just pick one.
“I’m drawn to whatever particular composer I happen to be performing,” Balge said. “I love the romantics, I love the classics, I love the contemporary. There’s a different facet to each.”
The majority of the MSO Executive Director’s job takes place behind the scenes. Balge writes grants and initiates fundraising measures, but her favorite duty by far is finding ways to raise awareness of the Orchestra within the community.
“More than anything, I enjoy connecting with the musicians and connecting with the community,” she said. “The Mankato Symphony offers a unique experience both for the musicians and the audience. I think what it offers is something for everybody.”
A lifelong believer in the enriching and power of music, Balge enjoys the opportunity her new position provides for linking community members through a shared artistic experience.
“Music can bring people together,” she said. “The emotional content of the music and the whole idea of meeting in a concert hall and engaging with the music is something that stays with you. If you experience this at a young age, it stays with you for the rest of your life.”