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SPCO festival injects music into the public dialogue

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Lembit Beecher, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's composer-in-residence
Lembit Beecher, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's composer-in-residence, has been working on the inaugural Tapestry festival for a couple of years. The new biennial event aims to use the language of music to explore issues of importance to the local community.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

A new festival underway in St. Paul aims to use music to examine issues important to the local community, while also developing new composing talent. 

Tapestry19, launched this week by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, began with a discussion of a work in progress from the SPCO's Liquid Music program by dancer Ashwini Ramaswamy. Then the SPCO performed at the Turf Club in St. Paul.

On Feb. 19, the East Side Freedom Library will host a group of musicians, writers and a photographer to explore the question: How do you recognize home?

That word "home," just four letters long, can open a world of complexity. In an increasingly diverse community, it can mean very different things to different people. Tapestry19's composer-in-residence, Lembit Beecher, said it's a great theme for the festival's inaugural year.

"In making this festival we really wanted to try to explore a culturally resonant theme with our communities," he said.

Beecher has been working on Tapestry19 for a couple of years already, looking for new composers. He's also been working on a piece himself, which draws on local voices and varying definitions of home.

The two main orchestral events happen this weekend and next, and will feature four world premieres. From Friday through Sunday, Twin Cities-based soul singer PaviElle French will make her orchestral debut with a piece called "Requiem for Zula." The piece honors French's mother and the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, where her mother was an activist.

Usually, Beecher said, orchestras approach composers to commission new work. But in this case, French pitched her idea to the orchestra.

"I think she really felt that an orchestra could allow for a creative venue that she couldn't get somewhere else," he said.

The French piece's world premiere at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts will be part of a program called "Songs My Mother Taught Me." The evening's other world premiere, from Syrian composer Kinan Azmeh, is called "Don't RipEat After Me." Beecher said it's based on the Syrian pledge of allegiance that was part of Azmeh's youth.

Beecher's own piece premieres next weekend as part of a program called "Reflections on Home." He and others interviewed 47 people from around the state about their ideas of home. He ended up with more than 20 hours of tape, from which he selected snippets to weave into his piece — called "Say Home."

"And the best way I can describe home," says one woman in the piece, "is that it is something that is very real and very here — and yet it isn't at all."

Beecher isn't sure how audience members will react.

"My hope is that they will find something, some detail to respond to and say, 'Oh that's who I am,' or 'That resonates with me,'" he said. "And maybe something else, 'That's not who I am but that makes me think,' or 'That made me think about the role of home in my life.'"

That second orchestral program will also include the festival's final world premiere. Beecher said 17-year-old Maya Miro Johnson's piece is called "wherever you go, there you are."

"She is a violinist, a conductor, a composer, and has the orchestra positioned all around the hall in different ways, creating this beautiful, crazy sound world," he said. "So we are excited about that."

The plan is for Tapestry to become a biennial event. Next time around, it will be Tapestry21, when a new curating composer will ask another question. It will likely be a quite different event, but the central element will still be community involvement.