Liquid Music: Former ballet dancer’s alt-classical series is on point

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja during her performance at the Walker Art Museum // Photo by Eric Melzer

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja during her performance at the Walker Art Museum // Photo by Eric Melzer

Curatorial dynamo Kate Nordstrum launched The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series—now in its seventh season—to international acclaim.

From her years training as a dancer to curating concerts across the country, music inspires Kate Nordstrum to action. “As a dancer, you relate to music viscerally,” says Nordstrum. “You think about how it feels in your body and you move from it.”

And, boy, has she been on the move.

Kate Nordstrom // Photo by Cameron Wittig

Kate Nordstrum // Photo by Cameron Wittig

Founded by Nordstrum in 2012, The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s (SPCO) Liquid Music series has paved a bold path, catalyzing iconoclastic artists to create genre-busting new work, expanding the definition of classical chamber music in the process.

“You have these great music clubs with people touring through and playing their album at First Ave—and that’s that—and you have these world-class classical institutions, but I was very interested in this somewhat middle space where artists from different backgrounds were working together and building special projects,” says Nordstrum.

Liquid Music Series was a risk, but Nordstrum arrived with the background needed to make the program thrive. She played violin and danced classical ballet in her youth and developed a keen business sense at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. She went on to work at Lincoln Center in marketing and also had her hand in buzzworthy music programming at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater.

To the chief question posed in her hiring at SPCO—can a legitimate, avant-garde series be fashioned under the umbrella of an orchestral organization?—the answer offered in the multimedia experimental programming that followed was a resounding yes.

Nathalie Joachim during a performance // Photo by Jayme Halbritter

Liquid Music Series has flourished by attracting new audiences while also offering something that appeals to the orchestra’s base. Today, about 20 percent of the Liquid Music audience attends more than three orchestra concerts a year. To Nordstrum, that seems acceptable. “I hope that someone hears something on the Liquid Music series that makes them want to dive deeper into the world of classical music, or electronic music, or who knows? There’s a lot of ways that this benefits the orchestra and classical music, but the ultimate goal isn’t to get people in the concert hall seats listening to the orchestra,” says Nordstrum.

Liquid Music has proven itself a generative force in new music, not only churning out engaging special projects (she’s never had trouble booking top talent), but also breaking with traditional aesthetic paradigms. Concerts showcase a holistic view of their artists’ creative lives while maintaining a footing in the classical music idiom and the footprint of the chamber orchestra. Last season, flautist and composer Nathalie Joachim’s integrated storytelling and new arrangements explored Haitian music culture and included a string quartet of SPCO musicians.

Also last season, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja gave a performance of Luigi Nono’s“La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura,” a late 20th-century work for violin and electronics, in the Walker Art Center galleries where the audience moved and followed her and, according to Nordstrum, “became a part of the piece, too.” After her turn at the Walker, Kopatchinskaja gave a weekend of concerts at the Ordway Concert Hall with the full force of the chamber orchestra in a program featuring music by Schoenberg, Webern, Takemitsu, and Mozart.

Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja during her performance at the Walker Art Museum // Photo by Eric Melzer

As the series has evolved, more and more Nordstrum finds herself asking artists to take risks, do something new, and collaborate with artists they haven’t worked with before. “At the beginning, there was more focus on presenting ‘artists of interest’ who may have a project already,” says Nordstrum. “So now over time it’s evolved to be much more new work commissioning and us taking an active hand in that.”

Liquid Music’s next offering falls into that category, including a new piece for percussion ensemble by one of the world’s most influential living composers: Philip Glass. Nordstrum explains, “Philip Glass fits with Liquid Music not because he’s bringing us his etudes, but because we are presenting a type of ensemble he’s never worked for.”

Looking to the future, instead of expanding the number or type of projects on the series, Nordstrum would like to give more to the nine projects per season she’s already curating, specifically with commissioned writing on the projects, state-of-the-art audio and video documentation, investment in new media, and greater development funding. “And then there is always the ongoing work of partnering with other institutions to make sure that the work doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Nordstrum. The series is slated to explore new territory, mirroring the artistic growth of Nordstrum herself, who is now producing for LA Philharmonic’s Fluxus Festival and was recently named United States chair for the international curatorial collective New Music Cartel.

“Twin Cities audiences are so primed for this kind of thing,” reflects Nordstrum. “We are so fortunate to live in a place where people are hungry for ‘new,’ interested in what artists are dreaming up and grateful to be some of the first to see it in the world.”

Liquid Music continues its seventh season on Sunday, December 9 at 7pm at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Visit liquidmusic.org for more details.