Even chamber musicians have to improvise

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Julie Himmelstrup, founder and artistic director of Music in the Park Series, had to figure that out a couple of years ago during a May 2004 concert, their 25th anniversary season’s grand finale, featuring members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra. Topping off the occasion was the world premiere of a piece by local composer Carol Barnett.

“There was a horrible storm that afternoon,” said Himmelstrup, “and a straight-line wind went through, taking out the power on half of the street.” Unfortunately, it was the half where the concert took place, at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ.

The plucky and resourceful Himmelstrup, with help from the audience and orchestra members, tried several solutions: candles (ineffective and something of a fire hazard), running an extension cord from the church to the Himmelstrup homestead across the street (blowing out their circuits in the process), and finally flashlights, which provided enough light for the musicians.

“It was pitch black,” said Himmelstrup, “but it was gorgeous. It was definitely one of the most dramatic premieres we’ve ever had.”

Afterward, several audience members complimented Himmelstrup. “One woman said that the evening was unforgettable, from the concert to the way people — the musicians and the audience — came together to make it work.”

Himmelstrup noted another interesting thing about the concert: “(Mikhail) Baryshnikov was in the audience that evening, but because it was so dark, no one recognized him and he was able to leave unnoticed.” The event concluded with a reception by candlelight at nearby St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, also a power outage casualty.

Although the concert in the dark was unusually dramatic, Music in the Park Series has forged a reputation for consistently impressing its audience. Himmelstrup credits the neighborhood for Music in the Park’s success.

“That’s the spirit of St. Anthony Park people,” she said. “I believe the people are the reason that Music in the Park has continued. I can’t imagine this happening in any other place.”

The venerable institution that is Music in the Park Series was born out of the love and passion that one musician, Julie Himmelstrup, had for chamber music. A gifted pianist, Himmelstrup has always loved what happens when small groups of musicians come together. She wanted others to experience the power of this type of music in an intimate setting.

Over the years, that setting hasn’t changed. “The church is small,” Himmelstrup conceded, “but I’d never want to go to a larger place. We’d lose so much. I’d never leave there.”

Right now, Himmelstrup is looking forward to her 28th season, which begins September 24 with Trio Les Amies, featuring Carol Wincec, flutist, and New York Philharmonic principals Cynthia Phelps, viola, and Nancy Allen, harp. This is a homecoming for Phelps and Wincec, who were principals with the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra respectively.

“We’re opening the season earlier because of their schedules,” Himmelstrup said. “They started off in Minnesota, went on to New York and now are back to Minnesota for this concert. They’ve performed for the Series in the past and are simply excellent.”

Music in the Park also includes Family Series concerts, held at nearby St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. For many children, it’s their first introduction to chamber music.

“We need the arts even more now,” said Himmelstrup. “The arts reaffirm the human race, and I hate to see funding for them cut in the schools. When I see these kids of all backgrounds coming together to our children’s events, I see the power of the music in their excitement.”

Regarding her own future with the Series, Himmelstrup said, “I see myself easing into a less involved role.”

Still, she’s not quick to pinpoint an exact date. “I’m busy all year round,” she said, “organizing things and going to New York to find new talent.” Agents also approach Himmelstrup about their clients.

“I pick people I love, the ones with passion for the music,” she said.

She grew reflective when discussing changes in the world. “Since 9/11, I feel this turmoil. The Series is a lot of things to a lot of people, but since 9/11, I also think of it as a place for all of us to come together. It’s a way to maybe rekindle hope, which we need a lot of right now.”

Music in the Park Series’ 28th season opens Sunday, September 24, at 4 p.m. with Trio Les Amies. All concerts are held at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Ave. For more information, visit www.musicintheparkseries.org.

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