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Watch: Virtual concert celebrates Minnesota composer Libby Larsen's 70th birthday

Minnesota composer Libby Larsen has more than 500 compositions to her credit.Courtesy of the artist

January 08, 2021

Mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski has been asked to do some unusual things in her career as a singer, but a new curveball was recently launched in her direction: Could she possibly imitate the sound of a wolf calling?

The thrower was Minneapolis composer Libby Larsen, whose 70th birthday is celebrated this week in a special online concert hosted by the Schubert Club. (Watch the full concert.)

And the reason why Osowski has been doing wolf call searches on YouTube and trying to mimic them is "Wolf Song in Los Angeles," a 2018 piece reworked by Larsen for her birthday celebration.

"Libby is always asking something new of the performer, and improvising like a wolf is absolutely not something I've ever done before," Osowski says with a smile.

"Occasionally, friends of mine have their dogs on Zoom calls, and I knew I was on the right track when I made the wolf sounds and the dogs reacted."

Based on a poem by Minnesota writer Bill Holm, "Wolf Song in Los Angeles" examines "the echo of extinction" left behind by 400 dire wolf skulls excavated at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, imagining the howl of their last song.

"I've been developing this piece for a couple of years," Larsen explains. "Clara is required in the song to become a wolf and howl, and we also have real Canadian wolves tracked into the recording."

Mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski
Clara Osowski
Claire Nieto

Osowski has long admired Larsen's music — "a 100 percent state treasure," she calls her — and took a leading hand in organizing the 70th birthday tribute, in conjunction with the Source Song Festival and VocalEssence.

"Libby has touched every arts organization in town she's been a part of, and we wanted to make sure her birthday celebration included things she wanted to hear again," Osowski says.

The choice was dizzyingly wide: Larsen has more than 500 compositions to her credit in a prolifically busy career, which has garnered her a reputation as one of the finest living composers in America.

Seven pieces made the final cut, their titles reflecting Larsen's indefatigably mischievous sense of humor: "Gavel Patter," "Raspberry Island Dreaming," "The Peculiar Case of HH Holmes" and "Four on the Floor" among them.

The idea for a birthday celebration was originally mooted in February, just weeks before the coronavirus threw the best laid plans of arts organizations across the country into disarray and muddle.

"I realized pretty much right away in March that the idea we first had for a monthlong series of concerts was not going to happen," Osowski says ruefully.

Instead, "Happy Birthday, Libby Larsen!" has become an online celebration, screening on Thursday, Jan. 7, as an hourlong virtual concert, and available free of charge on the Schubert Club website for a month thereafter.

The concert is considerably more than a conventional "stand and sing" recital. Many of the works included have a strong visual component ideally suited to the online format.

Osowski mentions Larsen's longstanding interest in mixed-media projects and views her as a pioneer in marrying classical music with bespoke visual content.

"The music video she made in the 1980s for 'Four on the Floor' is incredible," she says. "That was Libby, as usual, always doing music differently, and almost 40 years ago producing one of the first classical music videos ever."

Larsen remembers the film shoot well.

"We made the original video for that in 1983, long before YouTube," she says.

"It was a kind of MTV art piece, and we were concerned about technology that was speeding ahead way too fast for human beings."

Much of the fine detail in the birthday concert crystallized when Osowski and Larsen took weekly strolls together — "one good thing to come out of the pandemic," as Osowski puts it.

"I've been going on walks with Libby on Tuesday mornings, when we don't have a Zoom call or something," she says. "And then I go on a walk with Max, and I tell him, 'OK, this is what's going to happen in the concert.'"

She's referring to Max Carlson, program and production coordinator at the Schubert Club, and the man responsible for digitally stitching "Happy Birthday, Libby Larsen!" together.

The finished product includes spoken commentary from Larsen, and also Carlson's contribution — a video accompanying Osowski's performance of "Raspberry Island Dreaming," filmed on location by the Mississippi River in downtown St. Paul.

"In September, the pianist Tyler Wottrich and I recorded the song at Wild Sound, Minneapolis, in two separate rooms, so we were socially distanced and I didn't have to sing with a mask," Osowski says.

"And then I lip-synced for the camera crew on Raspberry Island, and Max has also worked into the film old postcards and images of the island before it was developed."

Larsen admits to not being a huge fan of either anniversaries or retrospection.

"I never have been a milestone person," she says. "I'm a Scandinavian, and so the idea of putting myself out there is hard."

But she is nonetheless delighted by the trouble others have gone to in marking her 70th birthday and half a century as a creative artist.

"I'm deeply affected, and it's hard to describe how honored I am that my friends and colleagues are doing this," she says.

"This past year, with COVID, has been very frustrating, as I miss to the very marrow of my bones the energy of having live performers with live audiences in a space together.

"And so this birthday concert is above all a chance for glee and exuberation. To take a deep breath and breathe out joy, because we're alive."

A celebratory concert of Minnesota composer Libby Larsen's 70th birthday, featuring performances by VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, Clara Osowski, Tyler Wottrich, Sonja Thompson, Mary Jo Gothmann, Philip Brunelle, the Minneapolis Artists Ensemble, Dave Hagedorn, Gordy Johnson, and Florestan Recital Project.
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