Thursday, February 25, 2010

Commissions anchor spring TCGMC concert

Minneapolis, Minnesota

As a child attending Sunday services of the new St. Timothy's Lutheran Church, held in the Nelson Grade School gymnasium in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, I once heard our pastor make a point in his sermon about the weakness of the human voice. "If all the people in the city of Chicago started talking at one time," he said, "they would generate barely enough energy to illuminate a light bulb."

In those days that preceded the Stonewall Rebellion by 10 years, the pastor had never heard a gay men's chorus, the collective voices of which now have power to change and illuminate the world.

For Glenn Olson, such voices have provided at least one life changing experience. As a baritone singer with the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus since its second season in 1982, he has attended seven quadrennial choral festivals sponsored by GALA Choruses. The 1996 GALA gathering in Tampa, Florida, he says, had a special buzz about it.

Word had it that the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus had commissioned a hot new work, NakedMan, to close the festival and honor the memory of the 254 singers it had lost to AIDS. For everyone, like Olson, who shared the moment, the outside air crackled with electricity as they emerged afterward from the packed hall.

With its soaring melodies, "NakedMan" sings the story of all people who have felt different, and celebrates their courage to face the unknown. The song suite, by Philip Littell and Robert Seeley, grew out of interviews with gay men, and is set in 15 movements adding up to 53 minutes of music. The movements cover the range of human experience: coming out of every kind, getting married, serving in the military, wrestling with God, and experiencing loss.

At the debut of "NakedMan" in 1996, Dr. Stan Hill had served as artistic director of the San Francisco chorus for seven years. He continued there for four more years before assuming the same post with the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus in August 2000.

With the two organizations, Hill has commissioned some of the most successful repertoire in the gay and lesbian choral literature. In addition to "NakedMan," he has shepherded to creation "Exile," "ExtrABBAganza," "Metamorphosis," "Through A Glass, Darkly," and "Misbehavin'!"

Hill also has led the TCGMC on a number of remarkable, groundbreaking journeys, including its 25th anniversary season in 2006. That season culminated in the Great Southern Sing-Out Tour through four states and five cities in six July days.

The chorus launched the Southern tour at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, becoming the first gay organization to perform on the historic stage of the Grand Ole Opry. From Tennessee, three buses of singers and supporters then traveled to performances in Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana. "Marry Us," one of the movements from "NakedMan," was featured at every stop.

Accompanied by the GLBT Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra, "NakedMan" will open the first half of TCGMC's spring concert, LifeSongs: The Music of Living, Mar. 26-27, at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, Minneapolis. In its publicity, the MPO states that, speaking for itself, its members "will be fully clothed."

The world premiere of "The Kushner Trilogy" will highlight the program's second act. Lyrics for the three sections – "It is Very Simple," "There is a Little House in Heaven," and "I Want More Life" – are drawn from texts by the playwright Tony Kushner.

The TCGMC performed the third section on four occasions during the Guthrie Theater's Kushner Celebration in 2009. Its text comes from "Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika," a monologue by Prior, a man wracked by advancing AIDS, who pleads before a cosmic tribunal for more life despite the pain of his disease. The music transforms the repeated phrase, "I want more life," from plea to confident claim for the gay man's place at humanity's table.

Jeffrey Bores, TCGMC's board chair, and his partner, Michael Hawkins, underwrote the trilogy's choral setting by Michael Shaieb, who also composed "Through A Glass, Darkly" for the chorus in 2008. Meet the Composer's MetLife Creative Connections Program provided additional funding to support post-performance conversations with the composer.

The spring chorus program also will include "The Promise of Living" from Aaron Copland's "The Tender Land," "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha," "This is the Moment" from "Jekyll and Hyde," and "Here's Where I Stand" from the film "Camp."

More than 750 men have served in the TCGMC's singing ranks since its first concert at the Heritage Hall of the Minneapolis Public Library. The group has recorded 10 CDs and performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, VocalEssence, Ballet of the Dolls, James Sewell Ballet, composer Ned Rorem, Harvey Fierstein, Ann Hampton Calloway, Michael Feinstein, and Holly Near.

The Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus will present its 2010 spring concert performances with the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota West Bank Arts Quarter, Minneapolis, Fri. & Sat., Mar. 26 & 27, 8pm. For tickets call 612.623.2345. Photos by Paul Nixdorf.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Twins baseball fans amid the ghosts of Minneapolis history

Minneapolis, Minnesota

When fans of the Minnesota Twins baseball team swarm to opening day ceremonies at the new Target Field on the north edge of downtown Minneapolis, Apr. 12, few will have any notion of the area's complex connections to people and pivotal events in the city's history.

Mere steps from the stadium's northwest corner once stood the Oak Lake subdivision, platted in 1880 near Olson Highway (6th Avenue North) and Lyndale Avenue with curving streets and some cul-de-sacs. The lake and its genteel neighborhood are long gone, as are the Jewish, black, and working-class white families that took up residence in successive waves as the original cachet waned.

Larry Millett, in Lost Twin Cities (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992), described the neighborhood's evolution and how, by the 1930s, the city had cleared Oak Lake and re-located the farmers' market there.

In Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City (242 pp, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010), author Iric Nathanson describes the role of land covenants and other implicit understandings that restricted minorities' residential choices to certain parts of the city. The experience and proximity of Jewish and black residents in the larger Oak Lake and Glenwood Avenue sector had important implications for the civil rights movement that unfolded in the second half of the 20th century in a city once known as the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.

My affinity for the area's history has a personal basis. The families of both my parents resided there at various times, and I was born at Glenwood and Penn avenues.

Earlier, on Jan. 23, 1937, when my grandparents lived at 506 Girard Avenue, my grandfather, Harry Hayden Peterson, was shot and killed a few blocks away at the Fresno Cafe, 1007 Sixth Avenue North. Joseph Taylor, the man who shot him in self-defense, lived a block away at 506 Fremont Avenue. Taylor was properly acquitted on Mar. 2, following a speedy trial. The case was a sensation in the newspapers because Taylor was one of the city's few black entrepreneurs and served as a role model in his community. Life was never the same afterward for the Taylors or for my grandmother and her four children.

By the early 1950s, according to Millett, the city regarded the area as its worst slum and, in 1954, demolished more than 660 structures in a 180-acre area between Glenwood Avenue and Olson Highway.

The intersection of First Avenue North and 6th Street, one block south of Target Field, was the scene in May 1934 of a strikebreaking confrontation between members of a Teamsters union local and 1,000 police deputies backed by commercial interests of the Citizens Alliance. Nathanson recounted the event as "one skirmish in a summer-long strike that provoked full-scale class warfare." The strikers eventually won the sometimes bloody struggle, breaking the monopoly of business interests on the city's power structure and balancing it with the interests of organized labor.

Nathanson includes chapters on more than 100 years of controversy about the structure of Minneapolis' city government; periodic bouts of corruption and indictment of mayors, council members, and police officers; and efforts to redevelop downtown, the neighborhoods, and the riverfront.

Baseball fans who will arrive and depart Target Field via the light rail trains may appreciate Nathanson's last chapter with its mind-numbing detail of how light rail mass transit arrived in the Twin Cities. Folks who have followed or fretted over the 13-year saga of the Shubert Theater's salvation and rehabilitation two blocks from the stadium don't know from nothing about perseverance in pursuit of civic goals.

For decades, municipal and state planners tried to build a freeway along Highway 55/Hiawatha Avenue, following an old route south from downtown to Fort Snelling and the airport. For more than a decade in the 1970s and 80s, hundreds and thousands of residents in south Minneapolis fought those efforts at city hall, at the legislature, and in congress, arguing in favor of an at-grade parkway that allowed for the possibility of light rail transit.

One dramatic confrontation occurred in the lobby of the downtown Federal Building late on a January evening in 1975, when 200+ residents took Congressman Donald Fraser to task for his vote in favor of funding freeway construction along the route. I was there! What Nathanson did not relate about the incident was the fact that residents chartered buses to the event at their own expense after Fraser's office had refused to schedule a meeting at a more convenient time and place. Light rail began running on the non-freeway, Hiawatha Avenue on June 26, 2004 – 29 years later!

In all of "Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century," I found but one factual error. On page 196, Nathanson relates that Rudy Perpich was elected Minnesota's governor in 1976. In fact, as lieutenant governor, Perpich assumed the office of governor on Dec. 29, 1976, following the resignation of Governor Wendell Anderson. Perpich then appointed Anderson to fill the United States Senate vacancy created by the election of Walter Mondale as vice president. Both Perpich and Anderson were defeated for election in November 1978.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A new gig, 30 days in

Minneapolis, Minnesota

When I assumed duties as executive director of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis 30 days ago, I added a new port of call to the harbors of arts management that I have called home. The time has passed in a whirlwind of 38 meetings and an avalanche of information that requires absorption on a daily basis. If asked six months ago – and I was – I would have said it was impossible to imagine myself in this job. Yet, it feels like what I should be doing right now.

Just today, a long-time friend asked if I was enjoying myself. The politically correct response would have been to say "yes." However, in this economic climate, anyone who purports to lead anything would be crazy to say that he or she welcomes the conundrums that visit every enterprise, whether non-profit or for. What we can say, honestly, is that we welcome the opportunities to solve major problems and wrestle with large challenges. None of us would consciously choose the environment in which most individuals and places of business find themselves.

The Southern Theater faces challenges similar to many, larger than some, and fewer than there could be. Some of the challenges got broadcast far and wide along with the news of my hiring (see: Star Tribune, MinnPost, and Minnesota Public Radio). This scrutiny places us under a magnifying glass in the public eye, but grants us a certain freedom that eludes other arts venues and organizations: because everyone knows we have problems, we can speak about them more openly and solicit solutions more broadly. Other venues and organizations have our same problems, some larger, and some more deadly. Many of our colleagues remain in willful denial or abject terror about their prospects.

All of us need to keep our heads and focus on the step-by-step basics before us. We must raise more money than we spend and spend less money than we have. To accomplish that, we must understand and control our true costs of doing business and price our products and services with that information in mind – balancing certainty with acceptable risk. Easy enough to say, but it will be hell to accomplish. The times present us with an array of undesirable options. Our survival depends upon our ability to choose.

We also need to engage with our community of users – artists and audiences – about the need for subsidy over-and-above the cost of tickets. At the end of a day, someone somewhere must pay the bills. This, too, is easy enough to say, but will be difficult to realize.

Many organizations that engage in the same or similar activities must set aside their competitive instincts and have the conversations that explore ways to share services and costs. Maybe even artistic products. (I know, I know the horror of all that – but if our largest, arts-friendly foundation can use that terminology, so can we!)

We can take heart from the month's-long uptick in the stock market: it has restored much, but not nearly all, of the portfolio value of our arts-centered grant-makers. We will not be out of the woods, however, until rates of unemployment and underemployment get reduced substantially. To the extent that the arts rely upon the discretionary income of individuals and households for most of their revenue, we will be under siege for some time to come.

Cyncis have – and will – lament our prospects and dismiss our progress. It is both a blessing and a curse of my life that I remain, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, an eternal optimist about what can be accomplished.

On March 1, 1910, the Southern Theater threw open its doors to the – largely – Swedish community that built it in the Snoose Boulevard/Seven Corners neighborhood of Minneapolis, overlooking the Bohemian Flats that border part of the Mississippi River. The founders of 100 years ago built their theater with faith in themselves and in a rich future. We have the opportunity to renew that faith today.

Join us on Saturday, Mar. 6, as we celebrate the beginning of the Southern's second century of embrace and engagement with the community that gives it life. The Southern Exposure 2010 gala promises a worthy evening of remembrance and re-commitment. If you can't make it that night, pick a performance from the schedule that appeals to you and resolve to attend it with a friend.

Look for me in the lobby. I want to see new and old friends in this new port of call!


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Notes from a precinct caucus

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The 34 most faithful of Democrats in Ward 6, Precinct 3, of Minneapolis, convened their biennial caucus tonight in the basement of the Plymouth Congregational Church, located eight blocks south of the downtown business and entertainment districts. Upstairs, the church choir rehearsed "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The Republicans may have thought about holding a caucus within the Minneapolis city limits, but we really have not encouraged them to do so for decades. Our liberal, Scandinavian tolerance has its limits and extends only to allowing them to cast ballots in November general elections.

Just like two years ago, when people lined up down the sidewalk and around the church to get in, the weather tonight was cold and snowy, the sidewalks icy. Unlike two years ago, there was no line of shivering people waiting to gain entry.

The proposed agenda for our precinct caucus said we would convene at 7pm. The convenor, however, opted to wait until all the stragglers had signed in, and we finally got underway at seven-past-seven.

After reading aloud the requirements for our eligibility to participate – sort of our nod, in its way, to the new political correctness of the right that seeks to cast out the aliens from our midst – the convenor read aloud the affirmative action statement – sort of our nod, in its way, to the old political correctness that seeks to affirm and embrace every form of diversity and nonnormativity known to man (and woman). He also read aloud something called a Platform Statement – a new thing, I believe, in the time-worn proceedings.

After stating his willingness to serve as the permanent caucus chair, we moved, seconded, and elected the convenor to serve in that position in spite of his unorthodox status as a self-identified Caucasian, heterosexual male. The now-permanent caucus chair then asked for a motion seeking authority for himself to appoint two tellers and a recording secretary for the proceedings. Suspecting that he hungered for this additional, less-than-burdensome and generally less-than-thankful task, I moved that he be allowed to do as he wished. After unanimous passage, he appointed his wife as the secretary, and two men – at least one of whom is known to be gay – as tellers.

We then adopted the rules for the conduct of our caucus business.

Then, after stating his willingness to serve as the precinct chair for the next two years, we moved, seconded, and elected the convenor – now-permanent caucus chair – to serve in that position in spite of his unorthodox status. (We residents of the Stevens Square/Loring Heights neighborhood pride ourselves on our open minded world view – whatever its relation to reality!)

After killing time for two minutes to permit the clock to reach 7:30pm, we elected delegates to the State Senate District 61 convention. Because the caucus turn-out two years ago had snaked down the sidewalk and around the church, our precinct had 55 delegate slots to fill. This meant that the 34 people in attendance – plus the four who had sent letters regretting their absence for more pressing matters – all could be delegates merely by signing their names to the form at the front table. To further our masochistic, if not somewhat sadistic tendencies as a political entity, in a similar fashion we determined who would be the 14 delegates to the Minneapolis City Convention (held in May for the purpose of endorsing up to five candidates for the Minneapolis School Board) and the six candidates to the Hennepin County District 3 Convention (held later in February to endorse a candidate for the county commission).

After killing a bit more time, the two appointed tellers – at least one of whom is known to be gay – were allowed to open the ballot box at 8pm to count the straw poll votes for who should carry the party's standard for the office of governor. When the votes were counted, it was revealed that two people had not voted. As for the rest, their results added up as follows: Tom Bakk - 0; Matt Entenza - 6; Susan Gaertner - 0; Steve Kelley - 2; Margaret Anderson Kelliher - 3; John Marty - 6; Felix Montez - 0; Tom Rukavina - 3; R. T. Rybak - 7; Ole Savior - 0; Paul Thissen - 4; Uncommitted - 1.

With that certification of consensus and unified vision, the excitement continued unabated as business then turned to the consideration of resolutions, meant to infect and inform the universal party platform to be adopted at the State Convention in Duluth. In short and perfunctory order, we voted in favor of single-payer health care at the federal and state levels (we insisted on voting separately about the federal and state status); in favor of marriage equality; in favor of an independent inquiry by Obama into the treatment of terrorist detainees following 9/11; in favor – rousingly so – of repealing the status of corporate personhood; in favor of promoting local and sustainable food sources; and in favor of a presidential primary in Minnesota.

Not to be pushed over by the special interests of our friends, neighbors, and nodding acquaintances, however, we did defeat a single motion following vigorous debate. That motion was to cut the size of our legislature by either 1/8 or 1/9 and to save millions of dollars. It was not clear whether we defeated this because we opposed reducing the number of lawmakers, or because we opposed the saving of millions of dollars. Perhaps both.

There being no further business to come before the body, the precinct caucus was adjourned at 8:08pm.