Minnesota Opera

Violinist Emilia Mettenbrink's Tiny Balcony Concerts take a bow on Oct. 2

Violinist Emilia Mettenbrink performs as a part of her Tiny Balcony Concerts in St. Paul.Courtesy of the artist

September 29, 2020

It is only in our darkest hours that we may discover the true strength of the brilliant light within ourselves that can never, ever be dimmed. — Doe Zantamata

When the COVID-19 shutdown hit, Minnesota Opera violinist Emilia Mettenbrink found herself "completely unemployed" from sundry musical and yoga-instructor gigs.

Then she got sick, "very sick." Not from the coronavirus, but in unsettling ways that threatened her musical livelihood, with intense ear pain and facial paralysis. It was a few excruciating days before she learned that she had Ramsay Hunt Syndrome and found medication that cured her afflictions. With her hearing back at the end of March, Mettenbrink grabbed her violin, stepped out onto her third-floor balcony in St. Paul's Ramsey Hill neighborhood and played a Bach sonata. And she played and played and played, nightly and solo at first, and then twice weekly with musical and dance accompaniment.

On Oct. 2, six months of Tiny Balcony Concerts will culminate with two performances of a "Swan Fiesta" featuring pianist Dan Chouinard and 16 dancers from Ballet Co.Laboratory.

"I have so much admiration for Emilia," Chouinard said, "to find a way to be out in the world in her music and to use the music as a way to bring people together, at a time when the instinct for a lot of people is to keep ourselves locked up."

That's clearly not Mettenbrink's style, but it was not without trepidation that she launched this series. Upon getting her hearing back, she said, "I really wondered if I could play. I'd never gone that long in my life without playing. So that morning I started playing, and at the end of the day I realized it's not going to work unless I play, so I walked out on the balcony and played a Bach sonata.

"I'm not sure if anyone was watching, so the next day I put out a note to my neighbors, saying that those of you who hate the violin, it won't last long, and those who love the violin, come by and listen."

Her April 1 post on the NextDoor neighborhood social-media platform read: "Hello, I'm a musician and I'm going to be playing live on my balcony every night (barring rain/snow) @6pm. …Just want to provide a little night music, live, from a quiet & safe place."

Over the next few months, weather permitting, she played works by Georg Phillipp Telemann, Georg Frideric Handel, Joseph Haydn, Fritz Kreisler, "lots of Bach … and I then branched out to some African-American composers like Florence Price."

She started a Facebook page, took requests and eventually scaled back to twice-a-week concerts.

Along the way, her next-door neighbor introduced her to her two-doors-down neighbor, Chouinard, and he started joining in occasionally, first on accordion and later on keyboard. ("I do have a keyboard that I don't like telling people about because I don't like schlepping it around," he said with a chuckle.)

Chouinard suggested their first collaboration, a few Astor Piazzola tangos, and introduced her to French-Canadian reels, French cafe music and John Harbison's Four Songs of Solitude.

As the corner of Portland Avenue and Kent Street became something of a musical mecca, Mettenbrink reached out to her fellow yoga instructor, Ballet Co.Laboratory artistic director Zoé Henrot, and soon enough there were occasional dancers on the sidewalk in front of the house.

Violinist Emilia Mettenbrink
Violinist Emilia Mettenbrink performs as a part of her Tiny Balcony Concerts in St. Paul.
Courtesy of the artist

The crowds, sitting across the street on steps or chairs in front of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, steadily grew by the dozens. Chouinard estimated that 50 or 60 people watched when Henrot performed "The Dying Swan" from Camille Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals.

That piece will be part of the two upcoming performances (at 6 and 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 2; rain date the next night), along with "Four Baby Swans" and the Odile and Odette variations from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

For those who can't attend "Swans Six Feet Apart," the 6:30 show will be livestreamed on the ballet company's Instagram account, @balletcolaboratory. Those who do attend will get a bit of a bonus.

"Emilia said her dream finale was to do a big 'swan fiesta,'" Henrot said, "so we're going to get some audience involvement. We're gonna teach some 'swan arm.'"

(Attendees are encouraged to bring donations for the dancers and/or to contribute to @Emilia-Mettenbrink via Venmo.)

Henrot will be one of 16 Ballet Co.Laboratory dancers on the sidewalk while Mettenbrink and Chouinard play, socially distanced, on her porch. Thanks to the Ramsey Hill Association, set designer Vicky Erickson is building a wood platform with Marley vinyl flooring for the troupe.

"That will have a little more give to us than the concrete," Henrot said, laughing. "We're excited because all summer we've been dancing wearing tennis shoes.

"It's an ideal solution and ideal way for our company to perform for the first time in six months."

It promises to be a beautiful and, for Mettenbrink, a bittersweet occasion.

"This," she said, "will be my farewell to my neighbors."

Those lucky people.