How Liquid Music became one of the country’s coolest alt-classical concert series

The first official performance in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series was by Laurie Anderson in November 2012. It was an auspicious beginning for Liquid Music, as Anderson is one of the more renowned and accomplished performance artists on the planet. But her show — with its dreamlike mixture of keyboards, voice and violin — wasn’t necessarily a special event. It was the 10th stop on Anderson’s U.S. tour that year.

By contrast, Liquid Music will kick off its sixth season Saturday with a world premiere co-commissioned with the Walker Art Center and New York’s Jazz Gallery. An electroacoustic ensemble will perform “Breaking English” by composer Rafiq Bhatia, best known as a member of the eclectic New York band Son Lux. Accompanying the music will be a multimedia experience by Minneapolis visual artists Michael Cina and Hal Lovemelt. It’s a signature Liquid Music booking: brand-new and adventurous, while expanding the definition of contemporary classical music with cross-genre hybrids of music and visual art (or, increasingly, music and dance).

The Bhatia performance is one of five world premieres and four commissions on Liquid Music’s 2017-18 schedule. With nine shows total, the season boasts big names engaging in unusual collaborations — indie-folk musician Bon Iver with St. Paul’s TU Dance, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer with writer/photographer Teju Cole — along with projects springing from longer-term “virtual residencies.” As Liquid Music curator Kate Nordstrum put it, between last year’s successful fifth season and the upcoming roster of performances, “we’ve hit a sweet spot” with this distinctive programming.

Surviving setbacks

In many respects, Liquid Music is an unlikely success story. Nordstrum was programming music and dance at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater until financial mismanagement caused the venue to drastically curtail its ambitions in 2011. Soon after losing her job (along with most of her co-workers) Nordstrum was approached by the SPCO about staging concerts in the organization’s rehearsal space, known as the Music Room.

But Nordstrum, who also worked in marketing for New York’s Lincoln Center, countered with a more enterprising proposal: a series emphasizing the burgeoning wave of contemporary classical and chamber music hybrids, an idea rich with potential for expanding SPCO’s audience.

“I was uncertain about taking the leap into presenting artists other than SPCO musicians,” admitted Jon Limbacher, the SPCO’s managing director and president, who was chief operating officer in 2011. “But Kate’s vision of broadening our presence and her passion for contemporary chamber music convinced me.” (He also credited former SPCO President Sarah Lutman, an early champion of Nordstrum and her proposal.)

The first year was still hard. While Nordstrum wrestled with integrating a brand-new program into a 52-year-old organization, the SPCO was wracked by a musician lockout.

“Optically, that was very difficult,” admitted Nordstrum. “The Liquid Music funding was not part of the collective bargaining agreement. If we had suspended programming that first year, I’m not sure it could have been revived.”

In the end, the organization was forced to delay just one Liquid Music show, a chamber piece by Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson that involved SPCO musicians.

Another setback occurred in Season 3, when the city of St. Paul’s Cultural Star program withheld funding for one year in accordance with rules about continuous support. The result was a pared roster of performances for 2014-15. Finally, because Nordstrum pushes artists beyond their comfort zones, there were inevitably shows that, as she put it, “weren’t as satisfying as I would have hoped.”

But the series persevered and prospered. With an operating budget of less than $300,000 last season, Liquid Music welcomed 5,300 concertgoers to its eight performances. Eighty percent of those ticket buyers had no prior experience with the St. Paul Chamber, ratifying Nordstrum’s mission to expand the audience.

After four seasons of Liquid Music programming, SPCO management held a series of retreat-like meetings last year to assess the series. The result? Nordstrum was promoted and even given an additional title: director of special projects.

“We determined that if we didn’t have Liquid Music, we would be trying to create Liquid Music,” explained Limbacher. “That galvanized our commitment.”

Taking risks

The type of adventuresome, alt-classical programming that Nordstrum generates from within the venerable SPCO institution is nearly unprecedented nationwide. Orchestras from Indianapolis to Seattle to Alabama have made similar attempts to reach younger audiences, only to scale back or gradually revert to more traditional concerts.

But Nordstrum and the SPCO remained committed to edgy, even challenging works. “If we are going to keep building excitement among our audience,” she said, “we need to keep taking risks.”

Composer Judd Greenstein agreed. “There is a connection between adventure and sustainability,” said Greenstein, who also organizes New York City’s Ecstatic Music Festival. “Kate pushes artists to do something different and has the faith and resources to help make it happen.”

“The original vision for my project was originally smaller,” remembered composer Daniel Wohl, whose 2016 Liquid Music commission, “Holographic,” eventually featured a percussion ensemble, string quartet and visual artist. “But Kate encouraged me to think big,” continued Wohl. She even helped secure additional funding for Wohl’s work and landed the show’s visual artist.

Another Liquid Music asset is Nordstrum’s tight relationship with the Walker Art Center. Nordstrum and Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither share their targeted bookings more than one year in advance, allowing them to plan a handful of co-presentations every season. Their list of co-commissioned world premieres, such as last season’s multimedia work by TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe and this year’s Bhatia performance, makes more efficient use of resources while avoiding petty squabbling.

“After five years,” said Greenstein, “Liquid Music has a track record, and that helps Kate. She now has more modes of building programs, and artists have started coming to her with ideas.”

That’s what happened with Ashwini Ramaswamy, a principal with Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company. Two years ago, she contacted Nordstrum for “an informational meeting,” with hopes of picking her brain on potential collaborators. Ramaswamy explained she was specifically looking for a DJ who didn’t exclusively work in clubs, someone who might help with a project involving memory.

“Kate said ‘I have the perfect person!’ ” remembered Ramaswamy. And soon the dancer was contracted to work with New York’s Jace Clayton, aka DJ Rupture, for a “virtual residency.” Clayton and Ramaswamy will document their creative progress this season via a blog at liquidmusicseries.org, with the goal of presenting a show in early 2019.

Ultimately, though, Nordstrum knows there would be no “sweet spot” without a receptive, supportive audience of Twin Cities music lovers. “I am lucky,” she said, “to live and work in a community where there is a thirst for new work.”

Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

 

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