When Anne Harrigan heard the Alberta Bair Theater was headed into an extensive and expensive renovation, she started planning.
Seven years later, Harrigan unrolled the 2019–2020 season for the Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale, tailored to fit the temporary displacement of the symphony from its longtime home at ABT to the Lincoln Center Auditorium.
Harrigan, music director and maestra of the Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale, has been through renovations with symphonies in Battle Creek, Michigan and Lafayette, Indiana.
“This was not my first rodeo, as they say,” Harrigan said. When she found out the Alberta Bair Theater would go dark for a year, she started thinking about venues and programming that would match.
The Lincoln Center Auditorium was identified as the home for the upcoming season, which Harrigan said expanded her thinking, in part because the auditorium offers a larger stage and more seating (the facility has 1,636 seats, about 200 more than Alberta Bair Theater).
“I started thinking much more aggressively, and that is what inspired a lot of what is happening next year,” she said.
Plans are to reopen the Alberta Bair by September 2020. In the meantime, events that take place there, from symphony concerts to the ABT’s regular programming, are being hosted by other facilities, including the Lincoln Center, Petro Hall at Montana State University, and at the Babcock Theatre.
This isn't the first time the symphony has used the old school. In the 1950s, the organization performed at the auditorium, constructed in 1935.
This season, the symphony has six concerts and a handful of special events and fundraisers. Because of the larger stage, the organization was able to accommodate symphonic pieces with larger orchestration and incorporate special guests, dance, and theater performances, including the concert version of West Side Story and a tribute to the influential ballet company in Paris, the Ballets Russes.
The season opens with a jazz-inspired evening on Sept. 21, featuring American composer and pianist Conrad Tao, who will perform Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G Major” with the orchestra.
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On Nov. 2, the orchestra will tackle Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Written in 1913 and telling the story of a young girl who dances herself to death, Stravinsky’s work was the third full ballet commissioned by the Ballets Russes. The primordial and elemental music has been described as incredibly challenging, and space was a factor to incorporate ballet onstage while matching the instrumentation of the piece.
“In some ways, this is a really benchmark for the orchestra,” Harrigan said. “It’s a riveting piece, very dramatic and beautiful and it’s a piece that is extremely challenging.”
The “Rite of Spring” uses a very large orchestra with dancers and would be very challenging to fit into the ABT because of the space considerations, Harrigan said. “At the Lincoln Center, there is lots of room to spread out.”
Krista Leigh Pasinin, classically trained dance artist who grew up in Billings, is choreographing the dance numbers to Stravinsky’s ballet, which feature herself and Erica Gionfriddo, a lecturer in dance at the University of Texas and dancer that has performed in Billings in the past.
The concert will also features Rosie Weiss performing “Chausson Poème.” A violinist and fiddler who grew up near Molt, Weiss recently won the MASO Young Artist Competition in the college division and is on a full scholarship at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, pursuing a violin performance degree.
Other local talent includes 16-year-old Tanner Jordan, who performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with the symphony and Billings Youth Orchestra in April.
“It’s a very ambitious year,” Harrigan said, part of what she describes as a strategic pushing of the envelope with the orchestra. “We are looking at proving peak artistic experiences for our audiences and part of that was recruiting heavily for top end musicians to fill in some of the positions we had open.”
Positions that were recently filled include principal percussionist, tuba, bassoonist, second flute, and third trumpet, chosen from a national pool of candidates. Upwards of 80 people a day turned out for auditions in April, double the amount in previous years, according to Harrigan.
“It was actually insane. People flew from all over the country to audition.”
The 2019 - 2020 season begins with a "sneak peek" Sept. 18 at the Pub Station, and guest pianist Conrad Tao officially opens the symphonic season on Sept. 21. For more information, call 252-3610 or head online to billingssymphony.org.