Little Orphan Orchestra

Mary Fallon

It's a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell. As the summer sun sets and early dew coats the grass, good Middle Americans stroll toward the city park where an orchestra is warming up in an open-air amphitheater. Oboes mix with the sweet belch of a tuba; a flute's chipper tweet hangs in the dusk air. The conductor taps his baton on the podium, and a hush falls. Slowly, out of the bowl of the cozy arena, come Bach's heavenly hymns. On the back porches of ramblers ringing the park, folks sip lemonade and smile as the harmonies waft through. Civic life, once again, is good.

Not if a raucous band of Brooklyn Park rebels have any say in the matter. Even before the Minnesota Orchestra could make a formal overture to the City Council there, dissenters were up in arms about the prospect of a new summer-concert amphitheater on land adjacent to the town's Oak Grove Park. Granted, the orchestra might bring with it the culturally enriching sounds of Mahler and Tchaikovsky. But, they argue, an orchestra-owned, 19,000-seat arena will also bring trouble to their corner of suburbia: noise, traffic, drugs, drunk driving, and violence.

Wait a minute. Noise--it is Mozart, after all--and traffic, sure. But Chablis-induced brawls? Marijuana madness on the manicured grass? Veering Volvos full of violent vegetarians? Yes, yes, and yes, predicts Sue Edblom, one of some three dozen Brooklyn Park residents who showed up for a rally at the city park in mid-August to nip the impending chaos in the bud. The orchestra's one thing, she says, but what the amphitheater and its backers have in mind won't stop there--jazz, blues, country, and rock shows will share the stage. And that's when trouble comes in. The anti-arena get-together was meant to launch a pre-emptive strike, Edblom says, and to send a message to local officials that the orchestra isn't welcome. "We're trying to cut off a proposal before it's even on the table. We don't want it."

For orchestra sympathizers, the current cacophony in Brooklyn Park sounds like just another variation on a theme. For years now, the idea of an outdoor amphitheater has knocked at city planners' doors in Shakopee, Burnsville, and Prior Lake--all, alas, in vain.

In 1996 orchestra directors formally trumpeted a new summer home as their number-one priority. "We have an opportunity to expand our audience and draw new people out to performances," says Orchestra spokesman Karl Reichert. The dream here is for the kind of retreat that the Boston Symphony has built for itself at the Tanglewood Music Shed, or the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Centre Amphitheater: sites where music groups play accessible fare for general-interest audiences. According to Orchestra administrators, the Twin Cities is currently the only major metropolitan area without a summer outdoor home for its orchestra.

This past January the Orchestra abandoned plans to locate in Scott County's Cleary Lake Regional Park after learning that the new facility would require up to $10 million in rural road repairs. And so the world-class orchestra--hot off a triumphant European tour, and preparing for their upcoming trip to Japan--remains an orphan.

Reichert admits that of the 50-some concerts scheduled each season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) at the proposed amphitheater, only one-third will be orchestra concerts; the balance will be nonclassical gigs booked through an on-contract promotions company. "From the beginning," Reichert says, "we've been very open about the fact that this is an opportunity for the orchestra to generate new revenue streams"--by owning the amphitheater and renting it out to different acts.

Margaret Loftus spent seven months fighting against an amphitheater in Scott County. She made the rounds of churches, schools, and City Council open-mic sessions, sowing the sour word about Stravinsky and his kind, and eventually roused a 650-strong mob to beat the band out of town. "I'm convinced that one of the main reasons our group was successful is because we spent so much time getting organized," she crows. Not only did she help the arena idea go down in flames, Loftus's organization ended up with a sizable kitty by way of donations to her nonprofit Citizens Concerned for Scott County to ensure that the march against Mozart will go on.

So when like-minded Brooklyn Parkers got wind that the orchestra was eyeing their town, they turned to the veteran Loftus for advice. She found a quick study in Peg Snesrud, a local business owner and candidate for mayor of Brooklyn Park who showed up for the mid-August brainstorm session armed with a crate of amphitheater research.

Brooklyn Park, by her lights, is a suburb on the move, a boomtown that can little afford invasion by a bunch of music groupies. Let them and their beloved orchestra in, she suggests, and locals who live near the park can pretty much kiss their property values good-bye. At least that's what happened to Palo Alto, Calif., residents after the Shoreline Amphitheater was built there, Snesrud points out: Now all property buyers within 10 miles of the arena must sign a disclosure form stating they've been warned about the noise. What's more, fans at big rock events show up with or without tickets, setting up camp on the perimeter without permission and sullying the scenery. Think of Altamont, the Who in Cincinnati, Lilith Fair. What you end up with, she figures, is nothing but disorder and the call for more cops. "And just who do you think will pay for that?" she asks, and answers, "The people"--read: taxpayers--"of Brooklyn Park."

Baloney, Reichert counters. According to its (by now dog-eared) preliminary proposal, the Minnesota Orchestra retains the right to veto any musical act at the amphitheater. "It's the orchestra's reputation on the line, as well," he reasons. And so as Brooklyn Park finishes up a land-use study of the park site, the orchestra waits in the wings for a stage to call home.

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