Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra
By Michael Davis (Originally published in Lavender Magazine)
The conductor search committee of the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) must have felt a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. After an exhaustive four-month search that included highly qualified candidates from all over the world, the committee learned that what it was looking for was right in its own backyard all along.
As it nears its tenth anniversary season, MPO will proudly present its new music director, Joseph Schlefke, at its next concert on March 2. His name might sound familiar, because Schlefke has conducted at nearly every MPO concert since his appointment as apprentice conductor in 1998.
Having worked with founding conductor James Touchi-Peters, Schlefke is very much aware of the proverbial big shoes he’ll have to fill. Touchi-Peters, who stepped down after nine seasons, is a prodigy who began his professional conducting career at 17. He was respected and admired by orchestra members and audiences alike.
But Schlefke has some impressive credentials of his own that quickly can put an end to any speculation he got the job primarily because of his contacts within the orchestra. He’s currently associate conductor of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies; he works with both the Symphony Orchestra (with which he toured China last summer) and the Concert Orchestra.
An instructor of music at Augsburg College, Schlefke also has done some conducting with the Minnesota Orchestra’s Kinder Konzert programs. Recently, he spent three seasons as music director and conductor of The Minnesota Opera’s Midwest Educational Tour.
So, Schlefke currently is conducting four different orchestras and rehearsing on four evenings a week. Still, he says, MPO is the rehearsal he looks forward to the most. “More than once,” he observes, “the orchestra has taken me from completely spent and exhausted, and released me two hours later, overflowing with energy and excitement.”
Remarkably, MPO still finds itself the nation’s first and only GLBT symphonic orchestra. Founded in 1992 by accomplished cellist Kevin Ford, it began with an organizational meeting at the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP).
The founding members envisioned an organization that would foster community among GLBT people with a passion for classical music. To this day, the orchestra purchases a large portion of the music it plays thanks to a memorial fund named for Ford, who succumbed to complications from AIDS in 1995.
Like most new music groups, the first year was fun, as well as challenging. “From day one, the group was a real stitch,” Dan Sadoff, longtime member and violin player, notes. “Touchi-Peters was the enabler all the way. Right from the first concert, it was clear that you couldn’t say anything to him that you didn’t want passed on to the audience from the stage or in the program notes.”
The first concerts sometimes consisted of overly ambitious programs performed with scanty string sections, as well as musicians who were eager enough, but in some cases rusty. However, according to Sadoff, “The audiences were very kind and understanding.”
The orchestra makes no claims of being a major symphony, but its audiences no longer need to be “kind and understanding” to enjoy concerts, either. Schlefke attributes the achievement of high artistic standards to the musicians, who, in his words, “give their hearts and souls” to the organization.
Schlefke continues, “Since there are an extraordinarily high number of community orchestras in the area, it can make survival feel like an uphill battle. But the members are committed to the music they perform, as well as the goals and social/political motivations of the orchestra.”
Clarinet player and originating member Kenneth Murphy points out that “a significant volunteer effort by many of MPO’s current and former members” contributes to the vitality of the organization. He gives special recognition to current MPO president Evan Page for his “consistent contributions and efforts on behalf of the MPO.”
MPO presents three classical concerts a year, in addition to a family-focused holiday concert in collaboration with the Twin Cities Women’s Choir, salon performances, and a pops concert. Much of MPO’s repertoire is dedicated to new music. MPO serves as a champion for the music of women, as well as music by GLBT composers and people of color.
“I know of no local group that has had as high a percentage of premieres in its programming as MPO,” Sadoff says. The March concert will feature a little known orchestral work by legendary jazz artist Duke Ellington called “The River.” It’s a ballet suite that Schlefke calls “truly wonderful” and “fantastic.”