Musical yeomen

For Southwest chamber musicians, day jobs are followed by nights of classical music

The intricate rhythms and complex harmonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Woodwind Quintet are as lovely as they are difficult. Such sonorous writing does no less than enrapture the audience at a Shubert Club courtroom concert in St. Paul. The musicians on stage at the Landmark Center are members of the Southwest-based Dolce Wind Quintet. As nationally recognized composer Randall Davidson says by way of introduction, the musicians epitomize what he calls "musical yeomen" – those excellent part-time and full-time professional freelancers at the heart and soul of classical music in the Twin Cities.

Southwest has always had a lively interest in classical music. Indeed, much larger cities might envy the concentration of musical talent in this corner of Minneapolis. The part-time professional musicians here practice their craft in concert venues across the Twin Cities and beyond. From Lake Harriet Bandshell concerts to recitals at churches, Southwest’s musicians provide rich listening opportunities for residents who love classical music; from Johann Sebastian Bach to Samuel Barber, from Muzio Clementi to John Cage.

While they’re not the most famous virtuosi of the classical music world, the amateur and freelance musicians of Southwest are the hardworking and capable "musical-yeomen" who fill the chairs of regional and civic orchestras and amateur and professional chamber ensembles. From their devotion and abilities come rich and voluminous selections of outstanding classical music. For many residents, they are the face of symphonic and chamber music – and in that way they are part of the foundation of the local classical musical scene.

Our resident musicians form a sort of informal and intertwined melodic network – one musician often plays in several ensembles and, in so doing, links one group and genre to another. The classical musical landscape here is a rich, interwoven pastiche of strings and woodwinds, percussion and brass. There are soloists, duos, trios, on up to ensembles of more than 50 musicians.

Take for example, the Incidental Trio, two-thirds of which is made up of Southwest residents. The trio’s string player is Fulton’s Steve Staruch, who is better known than most classical musicians as a consequence of his work as an on-air music host at KSJN Radio. Staruch is also a highly trained violist who has played professionally with the Rochester (New York) and Buffalo Philharmonics and who freelances in the Twin Cities.

Part-time professional musicians like Staruch relish the opportunity to play at a very high level, while maintaining their day jobs. He said that "making music is not just satisfying, but nourishing. There is something unique about being in an ensemble and making something beautiful."

Kenny resident Karen Hansen works with Staruch in the Incidental Trio; by day she’s executive director of Lifelong Learning at St. Olaf College. Like Staruch, Hansen is driven to play. She performs professionally in the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, the Rochester (Minnesota) Symphony Orchestra and other freelance pickup ensembles.

In addition, Hansen links the Incidental Trio to Dolce Wind Quintet, the quintessential example of the type of musical group made up of talented musicians who collect their checks from churches, recital receipts, regional and city orchestras, bookers and brides. Dolce’s music never fails to elicit enthusiastic reaction from audiences, whether in concert halls or wedding venues.

Said Hansen, "It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep up professional standards by practicing every day, no matter what. But performing is such an addictive, exhilarating synthesis of physical skill and emotional expression that it’s well worth the hard work and intense schedules."

Dolce Quintet bassoonist Ford Campbell, of CARAG, is an elementary school teacher who plays his stovepipe-like instrument with a professional’s attitude and precision, but without the trappings and salary that go to members of the full-time symphonies such as the Minnesota Orchestra.

This Pratt School teacher makes time around his full-time-plus job for practice, rehearsals and concerts.

"I squeeze it in around the edges and pay careful attention to my date book," he said.

Like the other Dolce musicians, Campbell plays in other ensembles – he’s also the principal bassoonist of the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra.

Kenneth Freed is the conductor of Southwest’s Kenwood Chamber Orchestra (KCO). Based at Ramsey International Fine Arts Center, 1 W. 49th St., the KCO is comprised of over 50 musicians of various ages and occupations, including students, working professionals and retirees. All are passionate about their core mission: to bring beautiful and seldom-heard music to audiences that don’t always make it downtown to Orchestra Hall.

Besides conducting KCO, Freed is a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, so he knows a thing or two about how world-class professional orchestras sound.

"After our concerts, some people come and tell me they can’t hear the differences between the music Kenwood plays and that played by the Minnesota Orchestra."

There are, of course, differences between amateur and professional players. Professional players display tighter ensemble playing, keep better rhythm, make better musical gestures and so forth, he explained.

"But in terms of raw emotion, [groups like Kenwood] provide quite a package," said Freed.

One of the interesting things about the classical music scene here is how broad the range of players is. It spans the scale from the amateur musician rehearsing once a week to freelancers with calendars full of professional engagements. The talents and skills of Southwest’s musicians provide audiences throughout the Twin Cities and beyond access to great music played with skill and passion.

"My college band conductor was fond of saying, ‘Talent is cheap. It’s what you do with it that counts,’" Hansen said. "When you combine talent with hard work and the inspiration of playing with such fellow musicians as we have here, audiences and performers alike are privileged."