October 1, 2022

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How an envelope full of cash became a Minneapolis concert full of new music

“Wildly unexpected!”

So reads the exterior wall of the Edge Center for the Arts in Bigfork, Minn. You certainly wouldn’t expect that concert hall in a town of 442 near the Mississippi headwaters to be the only Minnesota venue to have ever hosted a performance by Adam Tendler, currently the hottest pianist on the American contemporary classical scene.

In 2005, Tendler had a freshly minted bachelor’s degree from Indiana University’s highly regarded Jacobs School of Music. Rather than start applying to graduate schools, Tendler put out feelers to venues around the country, and ended up playing 50 solo concerts in 50 states, all featuring contemporary American music.

“It wasn’t what we were supposed to do,” Tendler said last week from his Brooklyn apartment. “I think the expectation was not only to go straight into getting a master’s, but also to stay and do it there. I remember my teacher kind of resentfully saying, ‘Do you think you’ve learned everything you need to learn?’ I said, ‘No, but that’s why I’m leaving.'”

Now the pianist will make his Twin Cities debut, premiering 16 pieces by 16 U.S.-based composers Saturday at the Parkway Theater in a concert presented by Liquid Music.

The program is called “Inheritances,” and it features brief new works for solo piano by, among others, Laurie Anderson, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly and Devonte Hynes, best known by his R&B moniker, Blood Orange.

The idea had its genesis in a Denny’s restaurant parking lot on the Vermont-New Hampshire border. His father had died unexpectedly in October 2019, and his stepmother asked to meet him there a couple of months later.

She handed him a manila envelope full of cash that Tendler’s father had set aside for him.

He mulled over how to use that money, and decided that a commissioning project was the way to go.

“The 50-state tour and this project are similar in that they came from something very personal and put together in a very informal way,” Tendler said. “I paid for ‘America 50×88,’ the 50-state tour, out of pocket from working construction and teaching piano. There was no funding. I didn’t know how to do that. I still don’t know how to do that.

“And ‘Inheritances,’ too. I just sort of built relationships and trust with composers over the years. … Just like the 50-state tour, it was: I’m going to do this thing and ask some people and see if they say yes or not. … The astonishing thing is that they all said yes.”

A fear of performing had been the impetus for Tendler’s earlier tour, which became a vehicle “to solve something on my own: How do I play the piano?” Also, “I was in the closet at the time. Maybe, on the road, I’ll gain the courage to come out” — a process he chronicled eloquently in the memoir “88×50.”

“This project’s really similar,” he said. “I said to the composers, ‘I need to have a process for this grief. And maybe you can help me.’ “

Ultimately, he decided it was “about the idea of inheritance.” He asked composers to think about: “What does inheritance mean in terms of your national identity or your gender or sexual identity? What is the inheritance you’ve received? And how can we explore that?”

The project was delayed by the pandemic, but came alive again when Tendler contacted Kate Nordstrum, the local impresario who leads Liquid Music.

“I’ve always wanted to do anything with Kate,” Tendler said. “I reached her and said, ‘I think I have something here. And the premiere doesn’t have to be in New York; it can be in Minneapolis.’ And she said, ‘Sure. I believe in this.’ “

“Adam and I have been circling each other for years, waiting for the right project,” Nordstrum said. “The intimate nature of ‘Inheritances’ spoke to me.”

“And then the project had a home,” Tendler said. “I was able to communicate with the composers and say, ‘We’re on. It’s in April. Start writing.’

“It’s these composers whose work I know, but every piece has really surprised me. Every composer whose work I had a profile of in my head has sent a piece that’s totally different from what I expected.”

Inheritances
What: Adam Tendler premieres new music by Laurie Anderson, Timo Andres, Marcos Balter, Christopher Cerrone, inti figgis-vizueta, John Glover, Ted Hearne, Devonte Hynes, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, Angelica Negron, Mary Prescott, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Darian Donovan Thomas, Scott Wollschleger and Pamela Z.
When: 8 p.m. Sat.
Where: Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $25-$50, theparkwaytheater.com

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities-based classical music writer. [email protected]