There are two basic ways to respond to great success -- sit back and bask in the good fortune or aim higher. The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra has obviously chosen the latter for its 2004-05 season.
Last season's theme of "Seven Deadly Sins in Seven Lively Concerts" attracted record crowds and national attention in the world of classical music as a successful way both to draw a crowd and to impress it once it came in the doors.
The new season holds to that form with a season-long theme (love) but packs an even greater wallop of musical highlights and star power -- from the opening concert featuring Gov. Tim Pawlenty right through the closing one with one of the greatest stars in classical music, Midori.
Along the way are composers' stories worthy of Jerry Springer, a thriving chorus and an upgraded pops series that will bring in the King's Singers, plus a dead ringer for Frank Sinatra and a murder mystery.
There's even an opera.
The DSSO is an organization so brimming with confidence it borders on swagger.
"All we've got to do is get 'em in the door once, buy a subscription ticket, and people will say, 'Wow, I really enjoyed that. I want to come back and do it again,'" said Andrew Berryhill, the DSSO's executive director, at the end of a lengthy interview in which he indicated his utter confidence in besting even that great enemy of arts organizations everywhere, the television.
Markand Thakar, the orchestra's musical director and conductor, said he could tell it was successful not only by the attendance figures but by the anecdotes, people stopping him in the grocery store to talk about it. "It really struck a chord, if you will, with the community."
But there's more to the theme business than just marketing. It offers an artistic framework in planning a season, too, he said.
And that's why, although the orchestra works a couple of years out in planning its programming, the innovative idea of season themes may be around for a while. Berryhill and Thakar both say they're happy to use it as long as it's working well.
Season of love
As with last year's programming, the love theme comes through in different ways. Each concert treats a different facet of love, such as love of country, unrequited love, love of music or forbidden love.
In some cases, this comes directly through the music, as in the case of music from "West Side Story" representing tragic love.
But other times, it comes through the lives of the composers or some other facet of the story behind the music. A good example comes from that same Oct. 16 concert about tragic love in a piece by Karol Szymanowski's "Violin Concerto No. 2." A friend of the composer, the violinist, was helping him put together the composition and the premiere but fell ill and died shortly after the performance. The composer came to believe the process killed his friend.
Also borrowing from last year's playbook, the DSSO partnered with Lake Superior Writers and its annual contest, which was again based on the theme.
But things start off on a unique note for the DSSO with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who will read a narration for Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" at the Sept. 25 season premiere, focusing on love of country.
Berryhill said the choice was easy and the orchestra is glad to have him.
"He's the governor of the great state of Minnesota, and the state of Minnesota has a long tradition of supporting the arts," Berryhill said, noting that the DSSO is a beneficiary every year.
It's an even easier fit given that it is not an election year for Pawlenty, and Berryhill said it's good for the region to have the governor spend some time here.
"And we're asking him to speak," he said. "We're not just asking him to come and stand up and wave; we're asking him to be on stage."
The Copland piece joins Respighi's "Fountains of Rome" and Antonin Dvorak's "Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)" in a concert Berryhill describes not so much as one about patriotism, in which one might expect George M. Cohen and John Philip Sousa, as about love of place.
The next concert in the classical series is the Oct. 16 performance centered on tragic love, with Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" music and the Szymanowski piece. Closing that concert is Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps securing the night as the signature event for fans of both classical music and Shakespeare's most famous play.
In November, the DSSO turns to love of nature, with two vastly different visions. Thakar describes Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6" as "kind of a hybrid genre" in that it is basically a pastorale, a sort of nature-inspired tone poem, combined with a five-movement symphony.
By contrast, Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" is "primal," to use Berryhill's word. With pagan overtones and a movement about human sacrifice, that's an apt description.
"It's much more about the cycles of life in a fundamental way than I think we would take in our modern civilization," Thakar said, noting that before our current century, ordinary life was much more connected with the arrival of spring in such basic ways as the availability of vegetables to eat.
The next classical concert, in January, treats unrequited love, returning to the works of Beethoven. Thakar said one of the ways to make a living as a composer in Beethoven's day was teaching piano lessons, generally for the daughters of wealthy and famous people. Beethoven apparently had a bad habit of falling in love with these unattainable women, and the belief is that his "Piano Concerto No. 4" was dedicated to one of them.
The same concert also features a Mozart piece and Johannes Brahms' first symphony, Brahms being one of the composers Thakar says could make a good Jerry Springer show. Brahms famously fell in love with Clara Schumann, a married woman, but then also fell hard for Schumann's daughter, Julia, 20 years his junior. He wrote his first symphony in the throes of that love and completed it in utter devastation after she announced her engagement to someone else.
The Springer-style intrigue returns in a different way with a March concert dedicated to forbidden love, with the story of Faure's "Pelleas and Melisande Suite," about a man who falls in love with his brother's wife.
The concert moves on to Richard Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder."
"Wagner was one of the world-class users in history," Thakar said. In this case, he enjoyed the use of a wealthy merchant's guest house. At the same time, he enjoyed the charms of the merchant's wife, to whom this piece is dedicated.
That concert closes with Tchaikovsky's haunting "Symphony No. 6," dedicated to "the last in a long line of unfortunate and questionable love interests," as the DSSO diplomatically puts it.
The concert will feature Helen Donath, a renowned Wagner singer. "She's a star," Thakar said. "She's tops."
In April, the orchestra and its chorus put on Bizet's "Carmen," not as a full production but with subtitles, costumes and staging with help from the University of Minnesota Duluth's Ann Bergeron. UMD's Rachel Inselman will perform as a soloist, along with Jaqueline Zander-Wall, Don Bernardini and Zeffin Quinn-Hollis. The theme: fatal love.
Finally, closing out the entire season is the appearance by Midori, in a concert dedicated to the love of music. The concert features a composition by a local student, Brandon Nelson, who won the DSSO's annual young composer's competition.
Midori will play Brahm's "Violin Concerto," and the symphony chorus and Arrowhead Chorale will join in Verdi's "Four Sacred Pieces."
The Midori performance will be a piece of history.
"This, on paper and in prospect, is a stellar season and capped off by really a tremendously significant event for us, because to have an artist of the stature of Midori to come here, it elevates what we do," Thakar said.
Berryhill, who has worked with Midori both in Atlanta and in Chicago, said a unique series of events led to her playing in Duluth. She played a recital in Duluth, presented by the DSSO, three years ago, but then won a major classical music award. One stipulation of the award is that the money be used to further the winner's career. Midori chose to use it to play with orchestras who normally could not afford her. That includes Duluth's.
"It's pretty expensive to hire her in general," Berryhill said. "She plays with the biggest orchestras in the world, and they pay. They pay a lot more money for the soloists than we do."
Midori chose Duluth based on the recital she played and the recommendation of a piano soloist who had played in Duluth and shares the same agent. Berryhill said she asked to be put to work, playing before as many people as possible and working with as many kids as possible.
Berryhill and Thakar obliged, in typically remarkable and innovative fashion.
The DSSO rented out the DECC Arena for the Sunday after Midori's performance and is inviting the largest youth orchestra ever assembled in Minnesota -- and maybe beyond -- to come and play with her for free. Essentially all youth string players are invited. Music will be provided in advance. Berryhill estimates it will top out around 400 or 500 players. Thakar will lead the group, which will also include DSSO players, and Midori will solo. A concert will be given at the end of the day, giving the community one more chance to see Midori.
"This is going to be inspiration," Thakar said.
Choirs, holidays and pops concerts
That would normally be enough highlights to attract symphonygoers, but it doesn't end there. A three-concert pops series opens with one of the best-known choral groups in the world, the King's Singers, on Nov. 6.
"Artistically, they're a tremendous talent," Berryhill said. "They're second to none in the quality of what they do."
The audience can expect them to do music spanning about 400 years.
Directing the concert will be Duain Wolfe, who directs the Chicago Symphony Chorus, where Berryhill used to work.
"Duain's position in Chicago, that's probably the pre-eminent choral conducting job in the world, I'd say," Thakar noted.
Wolfe will also give a workshop for the DSSO's talented and popular chorus, which is taking up additional work this year. (Last year, some of the highest ticket sales came in concerts involving the chorus.) In addition to "Carmen" and the Verdi piece to close the season, the symphony chorus will be featured extensively in the annual holiday special concert, which is not included in either pops or classical series but is a stand-alone event.
Rounding out the DSSO's pops season are "Death on the Downbeat," a murder-mystery Thakar says is "riotously funny," and "Simply Sinatra," a concert featuring Steve Lippia with a voice almost eerily similar to Sinatra's.
For information on tickets for this season's performances, call 733-7579 or visit the organization on the Web at http://www.dsso.com.