Kate Nordstrum is Twin Cities' curatorial powerhouse with international pull

Kate Nordstrum
Curator and producer Kate Nordstrum has carved a niche presenting live concerts of new music which don't fit neatly into established musical genres.
Photo courtesy of Stacy Schwartz

The 802 Tour rolls into the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis later this week, featuring an all-star bill of top new music composers and performers.

The tour comes to Minnesota in part because of the appreciative audience — a local following captivated by producer Kate Nordstrum, whose innovative shows have also cultivated a national reputation.

Composer and performer Nico Muhly says the 802 Tour offers three sets in one, featuring his long-time collaborators Sam Amidon, Doveman, and Nadia Sirota. The musicians play solo or in combination, moving between styles, from contemporary classical to folk music and electronic pop, Muhly said.

"The idea is that you sort of curate a perfect evening of collaboration in which everyone does their own thing but also everyone is basically on stage the whole time," Muhly said recently from his home in New York.

This is exactly the kind of combination Nordstrum covets. She is co-presenting the 802 Tour with the Walker Art Center. It's the latest step in her evolution from arts administrator to curatorial powerhouse. She came to the Twin Cities from the Lincoln Center in New York a few years back to work at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Originally a dancer, Nordstrum focused on the growing number of talented performers slipping between genres. While there are numerous places to see live music in the Twin Cities, most present just one style: classical, jazz, rock, or folk.

Nordstrum recalls seeing Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche perform a solo percussion set at First Avenue one night. She left feeling it deserved a slightly more serious setting.

802 Tour
The 802 Tour featuring, from left, Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, Nico Muhly, and Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) is named for the area code where the performers all originate.
Photo courtesy Walker Art Center/Matt Luem

"Where people were listening intently and there weren't beer bottles clanging in the background necessarily; where people were still feeling really relaxed and feeling like they are at a night out and having a good time with their friends, but that was a little bit more focused," she said.

When Nordstrum realized the size and acoustics of the Southern Theater lent themselves perfectly to such concerts, she began to book shows.

"At the Southern, it was wonderful to use the space that way," she said. "To showcase music with good lighting, with good atmosphere, with glasses of wine in people's hands in a space that kind of allowed people to let down their guard and be adventurous."

Muly was Nordstrum's first booking. He said under Nordstrum's direction, the Southern's music series quickly gained an international reputation amongst musicians as an important place to play.

"She can do things simultaneously, which I think it great," Muhly said. "She can administrate the hell out of a concert, which is really a wonderful skill. But also she's got her ear to the ground, really, and she's looking for things that are not already happening, but she could make happen."

One local example of Nordstrum's curatorial ingenuity is Accordo, the ensemble formed by members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, including SPCO Concertmaster Steven Copes. He describes Nordstrum as the instigator who helped form the group in 2009 and has kept it on track since.

"For someone who is not a classical musician, and is concentrated on a lot music that I don't even know or listen to, she has such an open mind to what we do," Copes said.

Accordo launched at the Southern and built a following.

Yet, behind the scenes the Southern was in financial turmoil. It ceased its extensive programming last year, and laid off almost its entire staff. The facility now works as a venue for hire with a general manager overseeing operations.

Things were pretty bleak for a while, Nordstrum admits. Concerts she had originally planned for the Southern she instead placed at other venues. Accordo just began its third season at a new venue.

Then the SPCO offered her a part-time position curating new works. Details won't be revealed until August, but Nordstrum said SPCO musicians will likely work with developing composers in a way which will allow audiences to become familiar with their work.

"It's tough work, and I don't think we are anywhere close to there yet. There's an audience to build and I want to be really patient with that and be really nurturing," she said.

To that end, Nordstrum said she will work with similarly inclined new music promoters around the country to offer musicians and audiences more opportunities and performances.

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Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Southern had closed its doors and laid off its staff. The current version is correct.

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