Playing by Heart

A repertory orchestra bridges the gap between age and ability, one piece at a time.
Craig Randal Johnson and Hilary Santoni have created an opportunity for local musicians to pursue their passion.

Every other Saturday morning, Suzanne Klein pulls out of her driveway at 9:30 so she can make it across town by 10. Her violin in tow, she’s headed to orchestra rehearsal. Not because she has to be there, but because she wants to be there.

She’s not alone. Thirty or so musicians join Klein in this bi-weekly routine, gathering in South View Middle School’s orchestra room for one simple reason—to play music.

The masterminds behind the Minnehaha Music Repertory Orchestra, Craig Randal Johnson and Hilary Santoni, saw an untapped opportunity in the Edina community in 2013—a symphony orchestra that gives local musicians a chance to play interesting and challenging compositions.

“We believe that as folks play this repertoire, they’re better equipped as teachers and performers to pass this cultural information along to others,” says Johnson, who’s enjoyed a rich musical career as a pianist, bassist and conductor.

Johnson chooses the music, estimating the group has played more than 35 pieces in the last two years. At a typical session, musicians will usually play three pieces, including one large piece, such as a symphony or an overture.

“The first time I played with this orchestra, it immediately felt like a community,” says Klein, who plays professionally with the Metropolitan Symphony. “Every time I go to practice, I’m expanding what I know and can learn.”

While Johnson brings musical expertise to the orchestra, it’s Santoni who leverages community connections. Having worked for the Toronto Symphony in fundraising before moving with her family to Edina 15 years ago, she understands how to create buzz and support for new ventures. Collaborating with the Edina Community Foundation, Edina Schools and the City of Edina’s Arts and Culture Commission, Johnson and Santoni have added a richness to the already vibrant arts community.

“It’s so exciting to experience the energy that’s happening here,” says Santoni. “There’s a sharing of ideas, networking and collaborating that goes on at each session.”

Several participants are music educators, one plays in the Duluth Symphony, while others hold doctorate degrees in music. There are also church musicians and students who want to gain more experience.

Johnson and Santoni have worked hard to make this a multigenerational orchestra, welcoming musicians ranging in age from 12 to 80. “Music is a great way to bridge any age gap,” says Santoni.

To further this notion, when organizing the orchestra’s first concert, Santoni wanted to highlight tenor Justin Berkowitz, a recent Edina High School graduate who’s pursuing a career in opera in Chicago. He not only performed alongside the orchestra at their inaugural concert, but also hosted a question-and-answer discussion with Edina students.

“I had no idea [music] was even a career possibility for me,” Berkowitz says. “Had it not been for Edina High School, I probably would not be pursuing music today in any shape or form.”

Thanks to Berkowitz’s supportive teachers and mentors at Edina High School, his dream is turning into a reality. He’s made his way across the country freelancing with different operas and orchestras. He’s worked with resident artist programs in Florida and even performed with the Annapolis Orchestra in Baltimore.

He laughs, “I’m definitely getting to know lots of airports.”

By using music as a conduit, the Repertory Orchestra hopes to continue forging bonds in the Edina community.

Minnehaha Music Repertory Orchestra’s next performance will be November 8 at 4 p.m. at Dragseth Auditorium, 4725 South View Lane. Free.