Common Chords: North Minneapolis

Common Chords: North Minneapolis

From January 21 through 27, 2019, Minnesota Orchestra musicians participated in approximately 25 events throughout North Minneapolis in the Orchestra’s first-ever Twin Cities-area Common Chords residency week.

Monday, January 21

The week of collaboration started off at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast at the Armory. Minnesota Orchestra musicians joined the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra bucket drummers for a special performance. 

Principal Cello Anthony Ross and Assistant Principal Cello Beth Rapier performed and connected with a group at the Cora McCorvey Health & Wellness Center.


18 dancers of all ages signed up to compete in a dance battle accompanied by a string quartet made up of Minnesota Orchestra musicians. The quartet performed 30- to 45-second selections of music by a variety of composers including Bach, Satie, Dvořák and more, while dancers went head to head in freestyle dance-offs. A panel of judges narrowed the field from 18 to eight to four and then the final two competed in a three-round final battle to determine the winner. Dancers found new challenges and inspirations in the live music selections, and the musicians took home exciting, new perspectives of pieces they've found familiar for their entire careers. For everyone in the room—dancers, musicians and spectators— there was something new, something creative, something emotional to experience.

"During the Bach Air in G, which is a piece we probably have played a million times — I don't know who it was, but the way he interpreted the piece... I looked up and I had a tear. You guys really moved us. Thank you." — Pitnarry Shin, cello

Tuesday, January 21

Orchestra musicians spent much of the day on Tuesday immersed in classrooms throughout the community, sharing their love of music with students of all ages.

A woodwind quintet performed for nearly 300 elementary school students at Bethune Community School. They shared unique stories about their instruments and their memories of first learning how to make music.

Clarinetist Gregory Williams answered many of the student's pressing questions, including several about the Squidward, who plays the clarinet in the TV show SpongeBob.

Violinist Aaron Janse, along with horn player Brian Jensen and tuba player Jason Tanksley, visited with students at Lucy Craft Laney Community School. The students in this class will soon be selecting their first instruments for band and orchestra, so the Orchestra musicians shared important tips about how the instruments are played and what sounds they produce, plus some insider tips—like how to make spooky sounds with multi-phonics, funny instrument mishaps and the value of practicing music no matter what you want to be when you grow up.

Students at the Harvest Network of Schools spent the morning with violinist Catherine Schubilske, playing music for each other and then joining together as a group for a few final pieces. Members of the Orchestra also performed at Cityview Community School of Innovation. 


An excellent day was topped off with an exciting evening when Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the full Minnesota Orchestra arrived at Sanctuary Covenant Church to join the community for a meal catered by Breaking Bread Café, followed by a sing-along concert. Music included Lift Every Voice and SingWhat a Wonderful WorldSomewhere Over the Rainbow and many others. Voices were soaring and no one in the building could keep from dancing along. 

Wednesday, January 23

After playing a Handel Bourree to a class full of elementary and middle school students at Ascension Catholic School in North Minneapolis on Wednesday, Minnesota Orchestra Violinist Pamela Arnstein posed a question: “Can anyone come up with a better title than Bourree?”

“The singing bird?” suggested one student. “French fries?” called out another. The students are budding string players who are learning their instruments through MacPhail Center for Music’s school partnerships program, which spans back to 1989 at this school.

Arnstein and Violist Richard Marshall are here to demonstrate, inspire and encourage students. “I think of practicing this way,” says Marshall with a smile, “you should do it every day that you brush your teeth.”  

Following a Q&A session, MacPhail teachers divide the students into smaller ensembles to work alongside Arnstein and Marshall with instruments in hand, focusing on intonation, rhythm and bowing technique. “You have to be aware of the group when you play together,” Arnstein advises. “Think to yourself, ‘am I fitting in beautifully or am I causing conflict?’”

The students seem to feel the progress as they move their bows together in unison. “Beautiful,” says Arnstein. “There is something just beautiful about playing music together.”

A trio of Orchestra musicians performed a concert at Homewood Studios on Wednesday evening, while surrounded by vivid photographs from 13 local artists who are members of the Homewood Photo Collective. A few of the featured and resident artists were in attendance at the performance, along with members of the local neighborhood and other musicians of the Orchestra.

The evening began with a delightful trio by Schubert before switching gears to a series of twentieth-century music that invited the audience members to sit up in their chairs and listen to a variety of new textures and soundscapes. Highlights included a spirited West Virginian bluegrass trio and American composer Marc Mellits’ eight-movement work entitled Tapas.

Thursday, January 26

At the very active Sumner Library, students were busy reading and playing on computers, but when Pamela Arnstein and Brian Jensen started their violin and horn Mozart duet, a crowd approached to hear what was going on.

With a new group of interested students gathered around, Arnstein and Jensen introduced themselves and their instruments. To demonstrate how to make a sound on the horn, Jensen buzzed his lips and then brought the instrument up to play a note.

“Does that tickle?”

“It does!”

Kristen Bruya and Kathryn Nettleman, Principal and Associate Principal Bass, stopped by the Ascension Catholic School after-school program at the North Commons Recreation Center on Thursday.  They were here to listen to and play with six young string players who participate in the MacPhail-led program.

After a performance from the students led by instructor Joe Kaiser, Bruya and Nettleman shared some of their favorite bass duets before demonstrating the role the bass plays in the Orchestra.

“The Orchestra needs that foundation. At least that’s what we tell ourselves,” joked Nettleman.

The event wrapped up with everyone rehearsing together and a discussion on how it feels to play with a group of musicians.

Marley, who plays the cello, said he enjoys watching his fellow musicians to stay in sync. “I know the people I’m playing with and it makes it easier to play,” he said.

Writers, musicians and fans gathered at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) for “Dispatches from the North: A Reading” on Thursday evening.

Writers from the Northside came together to share the stage with Violinist Natsuki Kumagai and Assistant Principal Viola Jenni Seo.

Before sharing his work, George Roberts, a retired teacher and 50-year Northside resident, shared that he was grateful the Orchestra was investing in North Minneapolis.

“You’re putting us on a map we haven’t been on before,” he said.

The works were as varied as the people who call the Northside home:  a look at what the community would be like in 20 years. A letter to a niece, an ode to a historic cafe, a love/hate relationship with the neighborhood. But in each reading, it was clear there is a deep love for the people, places and spirit of North Minneapolis.

Friday, January 26

Following a full Orchestra rehearsal at North High School on Friday afternoon to prepare for Saturday night’s concert, two small ensembles fanned out on the Northside for Friday night gigs. A string quartet headed by violinist Natsuki Kumagai and featuring Ben Odhner, Kenneth Freed and Katja Linfeld, headed to Patrick Henry High School to participate in the school’s annual winter choir concert. The quartet opened the concert with Dvořák and then accompanied the concert choir—led by Courtland Pickens—in songs including Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” and Josh Groban’s “You Raised Me Up.”

Simultaneously, just west of downtown in the Harrison neighborhood, a woodwind quintet assembled at La Doña Cervecería, where one degree temperatures didn’t deter a big weekend crowd from gathering. Roma Duncan, David Pharris, Kathryn Greenbank, J. Christopher Marshall and Bruce Hudson entertained with some Ibert, Beethoven, Vaughn Williams and Holst in this brightly-colored taproom.

Saturday, January 27

All the threads of this Common Chords week came together on Saturday night in a culminating concert at North High School. Led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra performed alongside 40-some Northside artists, including poets, dancers, visual artists, bucket drummers and student instrumentalists in this two-hour Finale Concert that was a “marvelous testament to what can happen when a community comes together,” in the words of Bishop Richard D. Howell, Jr.

Howell was one of the individuals who laid the foundation for the Common Chords experience when he invited the Orchestra to perform at his church, Shiloh Temple International Ministries, in 2016. “Having the Minnesota Orchestra here at North High School is not only a rich experience, but it is the right thing to do,” he said.

It felt right when the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra, comprised of instrumentalists in grades 7 through 12 and led by Tamara Gonzalez, took the stage to showcase their emerging skills with Beethoven –-and when LA Buckner led 30 young bucket drummers in a high-spirited arrangement of We Shall Overcome that featured Orchestra brass and percussion players.

Poets Debra Stone and Sagirah Shahid shared their writings about the Northside. Dancers Malvin X and Cecil Virgo Neal participated in a freestyle dance improvisation to the Orchestra’s interpretation of Michael Abels’ Dance for Martin’s Dream. “It was unreal,” recounted Neal, who attended Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s concerts as an elementary student, “like I was creating something new onstage.”

The Steeles, the powerhouse sibling ensemble, joined the Orchestra and trumpeter Charles Lazarus for a soaring trio of songs to end the evening at full throttle: Heaven Help Us All, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and Our Love is Here to Stay.

For audiences who wanted just a little more, Orchestra Board member Yvonne Cheek promised that Orchestra musicians had more in store on Sunday at local churches and the Capri Theater.  “And we are already talking about what project will come next” in the neighborhood, she said.

Artwork created live during the concert by Juxtaposition Arts artist and designer Patricio DeLara.

Sunday, January 28


To conclude a jam-packed week with our North Minneapolis neighbors, three members of the Minnesota Orchestra shared the stage with more than thirty musicians of the Capri Big Band for a Sunday afternoon jazz concert at the Capri Theater. Music Director Osmo Vänskä and Principal Clarinet Gabriel Campos Zamora both joined in on their clarinets and Charles Lazarus on the trumpet.

The band, led by Director Faye Washington, filled the theater with music by jazz greats including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Glenn Miller. In addition to exciting solos by Big Band musicians, Vänskä was featured in Moonlight Serenade and Lazarus in Tenderly.

Zamora also played the bass clarinet, an instrument not typically found in the big band setting. He gave a mini demonstration after host Donald Washington exclaimed to the crowd: “And check out this clarinet! You don’t always get to see this beautiful instrument!”

Thirsty Whale Bakery provided cookies and coffee for a post-concert reception, where musicians and guests greeted each other and recounted all of the wonderful events and music they experienced throughout the week!

 Photography: Joseph Scheller, Tony Nelson, Heidi Giacalone, Pat Carney and Minnesota Orchestra staff

Minnesota Orchestra Staff