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When a weekly newspaper has a publication date of 31 December, it seems appropriate to look back at the memories, in this case, the music and theater delights of 2015. As I thumbed back through my weekly calendar, sights and sounds began swirling around in my brain, until I realized I had too many wonderful moments to share in one weekly column. I frequently attend two (or more) performances weekly throughout most of the calendar year, and, happily, so much of the entertainment scene in Duluth is definitely above average.
A Handel opera surrounded by vegetables?
My greatest surprise of the year was a twisted performance of Alcina’s Island, an opera by the 18th century British composer G. F. Handel. Handel’s music was blended with trucker songs from the 1980s, and hilariously performed outdoors at the Food Farm(!) in Wrenshall, USA. The threat of rain, the constant wind, and the delicious finger foods made for a spectacular experience on an August afternoon in northeastern MN. The Twin-Cities based opera company, Mixed Precipitation, brought an unconventional operatic moment to a varied family audience down on a local farmyard. Memories are certainly made of this.
Musical Theater was particularly rich this year
I seem to have been consistently impressed by theatrical productions during 2015. Duluth has more acting companies than anyone would guess, and I heartily commend Fitger’s Theater, Wise Fool Shakespeare, The Duluth Playhouse, The Underground, and the Hillside Youth Theatre for presenting several stimulating plays this past year.
As I mentioned in late July, Titanic, the Musical, was stunning. At year’s end, I still remember that intense evening, upstairs in the intimacy of the Fitger Playhouse (or the deck of the Titanic), as the music and the emotions filled the room with powerful, lovely solo and ensemble singing. During that same week, I was amazed at three dozen very young performers from the Hillside Youth Theatre, singing their way through a Total Eclipse of the Art. Duluth writer Jean Sramek created a plot about stolen art, then added new lyrics to Motown classic songs, so that children could understand anew the value of art in the human experience.
Wise Fool Shakespeare staged Dancing at Lughnasa, a very poignant set of 1936 memories in the life of Irish playwright Brian Fiel, who happened to die at the beginning of October, just as the play was closing here in Duluth. While not a musical, it grabbed my attention with the very intense family stories shared by sisters and brothers growing up in County Donegal before and during World War II.
Near the end of the year, The Duluth Playhouse, and its newest branch, The Underground, both offered exceptional productions. The stage version of Mary Poppins was practically perfect, primarily thanks to the inspiring/engaging acting and singing of Ali Littrell Finstrom, Shad Olsen, and Jeffrey Madison. Everyone in the sold out house knew that they had been to the housetops of London, the steps of St. Paul, and the creative approach to life Mary Poppins brings to child and adult in equal doses.
Since 2015 represented the 40th anniversary of the loss of the ore boat, Edmund Fitzgerald, bringing Ten November back to Duluth was in order. The Underground was a great choice for this very face-to-face encounter with the men and their families who endured the sudden loss of ship, cargo, and 29 experienced seamen. The text by Stephen Dietz is still mesmerizing as it unfolds, and the musical commentary by Eric Peltoniemi was even more haunting that my memories of the 1995 production.
Romantic classical music at its very best
Finally, two memorable performances of late Romantic music by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra reminded me how gifted Music Director Dirk Meyer is at interpreting this music. Back in April, guest cellist Suren Bagratuni played the A. Dvorak Cello Concerto with a passion that literally stopped the breathing in Symphony Hall. His ability to communicate this concerto on that April night was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At least that was how the audience seemed to react when it concluded.
Then in October, Meyer conducted the Sixth (and final) Symphony by Peter Tchaikovsky, and once again, the audience reacted in a spellbound manner. The intimacy and the passion poured over the top of the moment, with Meyer being storyteller and conductor, and the DSSO musicians supporting him every minute of this epic saga.
Now you know what I remember from part of the Duluth Arts scene during 2015. We should be very thankful to all the artists and producers who give us so much every year. I certainly look forward to the coming year, and I look forward to sharing my observations with The Reader audience. I hope your 2016 is filled with the arts, week in and week out.