The setting late-September sun filtered through gold leaves on a quiet street in St. Paul’s Ramsey Hill neighborhood. Carrying lawn chairs, glasses of wine or cups of coffee, people shuffled through fallen leaves to set up across the street from one of the area’s stately residences with a tiny balcony on the top floor.
Sweet solo violin would soon flow into the golden light on that street. Another Tiny Balcony Concert was about to begin.
Violinist Emilia Mettenbrink has been performing from the (truly) tiny balcony since the pandemic shut down her work with Twin Cities orchestras. She started with every night in April, and shifted to just Tuesdays and Thursdays as the summer went on. There’s one more regular concert Tuesday, Sept. 29, at Portland and Kent, and the Tiny Balcony finale will feature ballet dancers on the sidewalk with excerpts from “Swan Lake” on the program Friday, Oct. 1.
The music from the third-floor curved balcony outside the condo she shares with Simon Jette-Nantel is a response to the struggles Mettenbrink and so many performers face during the pandemic.
Mettenbrink returned from her third tour with Sphinx Virtuosi, a chamber orchestra of Black and Latinx performers, on March 11. The next day, she went to the final rehearsal with the Minnesota Opera orchestra before the spring opera was set to open. The next day, the opera was shut down. Detroit-based Sphinx Virtuosi, which had played the Ordway in St. Paul on March 1, halted its performances.
She was furloughed from the yoga classes she taught.
Then Mettenbrink got really sick. It wasn’t COVID-19, but she lost part of her hearing and had partial face paralysis. Shingles inside her ear was the diagnosis and — fortunately for this musician — she recovered.
“I’m a pretty heathy person, so it really threw me for a loop,” Mettenbrink said by phone last week.
On April 2, Mettenbrink got a clean bill of health and says she needed to play the violin: “I just walked out on the balcony one night and started to play.”
A few neighbors were outside and asked if she would do it again. She stepped outside to play every night, eventually dropping to twice a week. Jette-Nantel ducks behind the balcony railing to turn pages during the concerts.
Mettenbrink introduces the Tiny Balcony Concerts with a few words about what she’s about to play. On Sept. 24, she played Bach’s Partita #3 (seven movements — Preludio, Loure, Gavotte en Rondo, Minuet I, Minuet II, Bouree and Giga). She explained from the balcony that Bach’s partitas are a “rite of passage” for violinists and invited the audience to dance when she performed the back-to-back minutes.
The concerts last for five to 10 minutes, Mettenbrink says. “I would tell people, ‘If you hate the violin, it’s only 5 or 10 minutes. If you love the violin, come back again.’ ”
Mettenbrink, who also fills in with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, grew up in Minneapolis, where her mom started her on the violin at age 3. He mother wasn’t a musician. She got the idea from a neighborhood babysitting co-op.
“She decided I should play the violin,” Mettenbrink says of her mother. “She was right about that — and so many things.”
At Thursday’s concert, Barb Tretheway and Michelle Beeman, who live down the block to the west of the Tiny Balcony, perched on the curb, wine glasses in hand. They’re regulars at Mettenbrink’s concerts, first hearing about them on a Facebook neighborhood page.
“It’s just a little moment of joy,” Beeman said. They’ve seen Mettenbrink perform with a cellist, accordionist and neighbor Dan Chouinard and dancer Zoe Henrot, founder and artistic director of St. Paul’s Ballet Co.Laboratory. They’ve been there for Tango Tuesdays, the last of which will be Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Henrot and some of the dancers from her company will be back for the finale. In an email, Henrot said, “Emilia is collaborating with the entire Ballet Co.Laboratory Company and some of our advanced students. We will have 16 swans dancing in total!”
Cathy Maes, president of the Ramsey Hill Association has also been a regular at the concerts. “It’s one point in time of the day to just come together and say, ‘We’re going to be OK.’ ”
Mettenbrink says she’s gained a sense of neighborhood from the concerts.
“For the first time in my life, I feel like I’d be able to walk over to a neighbor’s to borrow a cup of sugar,” she says. “It’s nice to know we’ve created community.”
The neighbors are grateful, of course, but Mettenbrink says she’s not doing it just for them.
“I do it for myself. It makes me feel full inside.”
IF YOU GO
- What: Tiny Balcony Concerts
- When: 6 p.m. Sept. 29; Finale with dancers from Ballet Co.Laboratory dancing to excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” 6 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 2
- Where: Near the intersection of Portland Avenue and Kent Street, St. Paul
- Cost: Free, but donations are accepted.
- And: Masks and social distancing are requested at the Tiny Balcony Concerts. More information is on Facebook @tinybalconyconcerts.
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