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FREE Courtroom Concert featuring Maria Jette, soprano; Leslie Shank, violin; Brenda Mickens, violin; Sifei Cheng, viola; Laura Sewell, cello

Thursday, January 20, 12:00PM

Landmark Center, Cortile

Please Note: This concert will be held in the Landmark Center Cortile (1st floor).


About the Artists

(left to right) Brenda Mickens, Maria Jette, Leslie Shank, Sifei Cheng, Laura Sewell, AJ Isaacson-Zvidzwa

Maria Jette, soprano, has appeared with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra: the Symphonies of Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Grand Rapids, Kansas City, Charlotte, Santa Rosa and Buffalo; Vocalessence (formerly The Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota), the Handel Choir of Baltimore, Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia, and Los Angeles Master Chorale; and with original instrument ensembles Angelica Cantanti, Portland Baroque Orchestra and The Lyra Baroque Orchestra. She has been a regular guest at the Oregon Bach, Victoria Bach and San Luis Obispo Mozart Festivals, the Oregon Festival of American Music, and on Public Radio International’s A Prairie Home Companion. With conductor Helmuth Rilling, she has sung Bach, Mozart and Monteverdi in Germany, Spain, Japan, and Canada, as well as in Minneapolis, New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. In a 20+ year association with conductor Philip Brunelle, she first appeared as the coloratura dog, Fido, in Britten’s Paul Bunyan; and has gone on to sing everything from fully-staged operas by Mozart opera and Virgil Thomson through oratorios by Handel, William Bolcom and Francis Grier, and most recently, Dominick Argento’s glorious Evensong (2009).

Her 45+ operatic roles range from Monteverdi’s Poppea and Handel’s Cleopatra through Mozart’s Pamina, Countess and Fiordiligi, many of them with the late, lamented Ex Machina Antique Music Theatre in the Twin Cities. With The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, she starred as the Mrs. in the May 2002 premiere of Garrison Keillor’s operatic excursion, Mr. and Mrs. Olson. She has performed her own production of Seuss/Kapilow’s Green Eggs & Ham for more than 50,000 kids, with symphonies and music festivals around the USA.

Leslie Shank leads an active musical life as a soloist and chamber musician. She was a member of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for 30 years, 24 years as assistant concertmaster. Shank gave her New York recital debut at Carnegie’s Weill Hall as a winner of the Artists International Competition, and was twice re-engaged to perform on its Special Presentation Series. She was appointed Visiting Assistant Violin Professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, for the year 2014-15. Shank currently serves as concertmaster of the Music in the Mountains Festival in Colorado, and has performed at numerous other festivals including the Aspen, Grand Teton, Mainly Mozart, Marlboro, and the Britt Festival, where she served as concertmaster of the festival orchestra. As a member of the prestigious Musicians from Marlboro, she toured the East Coast.

Violinist Brenda Mickens was a long time member of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. She also played with the San Diego Symphony, Lincoln Symphony, and Nebraska Chamber Orchestra during her student years. Brenda received a master’s degree in music performance from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and she currently freelances and teaches privately.

Born in Taiwan and raised in California, violist Sifei Cheng joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1995. He has served as principal viola of the Charleston Symphony, New World Symphony, Juilliard Orchestra and has led sections under Michael Tilson Thomas, Eiji Oue and Christoph Eschenbach. As a chamber musician, he has played in the Ravinia Festival, Caramoor Music Festival, Taos Chamber Music Festival, Pacific Music Festival and the New York String Seminar. Some of his past coaches include Samuel Rhodes, Miriam Fried, Paul Biss, Alan de Veritch, the Tokyo String Quartet and the American String Quartet. He has collaborated in chamber music with artists such as Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank, Andrew Litton and Alicia de Larrocha. He is also a member of The Isles Ensemble, a collaborative chamber group here in the Twin Cities.

Outside of classical music, Cheng has recorded with the late legendary Prince and served as principal viola of the Game of Thrones in Concert Orchestra that debuted in 2017 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Most recently he performed with singer, rapper and songwriter Dessa at First Ave.

He holds a degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and has also studied at The Juilliard School in New York. His past teachers include Karen Tuttle, Michael Tree and William Kennedy.

Laura Sewell enjoys an active and varied musical career and has distinguished herself as a highly respected chamber musician. She was the founding cellist of the award-winning Lark Quartet which, during her tenure, won the Bronze Medal at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and served as the Juilliard String Quartet’s teaching assistants at the Juilliard School. Two decades later, she was the cellist of the acclaimed Artaria String Quartet from 2007-2016. She plays as a substitute cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra and performs with the Twin Cities-based Isles Ensemble. She is the recipient of a 2020 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to record a CD of works for cello and piano by composers Stephen Paulus, Paul Schoenfield, and David Evan Thomas. Ms. Sewell received her Bachelor’s Degree from the Juilliard School where she was a student of Leonard Rose, and her Master’s Degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music where she studied with Alan Harris. At the age of seventeen, Laura had the unique opportunity to study with legendary cellist, Jacqueline du Pré. She serves as the Associate Director of the International Cello Institute.


About the Composer:

AJ Isaacson-Zvidzwa is an international lecturer, caretaker for her brother, a former competitive dancer, performed a composition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., played and learned the oboe is not her instrument, is presently partnering with Borealis Dance Theatre to choreograph “Angels Sang to Me,” has traveled to 31 states with her husband where she has taken up hiking, kayaking, and (yet-to-catch-a-fish) angling. She is also a female, BIPOC, violist, composer, and musicologist who lives with mental illness. Presently, AJ is working on “Buried Alive” for 2-part voice (SA or TB), optional bass guitar, and piano commissioned by the Voices of Hope Minnesota prison choirs; “The Sun Will Rise” for vibraphone and string quartet, premiering May 2022 by the Artaria String Quartet with guest vibraphonist Eri Isomura; 4 songs for soprano, viola, and piano with texts by Walter de la Mare commissioned by soprano Maria Jette; and a new piece commissioned by the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet to be premiered in their 2022-23 season. AJ holds a Bachelor of Music degree in viola and violin performance from Augsburg University where she was concertmaster of the orchestra, was named a 2014 Presser Scholar and a winner of the Augsburg Symphony Orchestra Concerto/Aria Competition. She has published an article in the Journal of the American Viola Society, is preparing an article for the American String Teachers Journal (ASTA), and for fun, she is editing an (only in manuscript) 18th-century viola concerto by composer Georg Schultz for its first printed publication. For more on AJ, visit her website at ajmnmusic.com

In 2020, AJ Isaacson-Zvidzwa was selected as a Cedar Commissions Artist to write the song cycle, Angels Sang to Me for soprano and string quartet exploring her journey with mental illness. “This work captures both the initial beauty and allure of an onset of an episode before descending into the tragic and dissonant chaos which follows. Haunting and pervasive tones tug empathetic listeners through the experience toward a deeper understanding of the tumultuous experience of living through and despite this illness.” (Rebecca Evans, certified mental health peer support specialist). AJ’s story is told through poems and writings of past artists who continued to create while mentally ill including Emily Dickinson, Hector Berlioz, Ian Hamilton on Robert Lowell, William Blake, Robert Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Clara Schumann on Robert Schumann, and Edgar Allan Poe. Instrumental interludes are interspersed throughout to illustrate the emotional highs and lows of AJ’s journey through bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, touching on fear, confusion, mania, hallucinations, levity, and concluding with a balancing and accepting awareness of one’s illness. The instrumentalists whisper, speak, and shout while accompanying the singer, as lyrics and texts draw the performers and audience through illness towards health.


About the Host:

Composer Abbie Betinis writes music called “inventive, richly melodic” (The New York Times), “superb, whirling, soaring” (Tacoma News Tribune), and “the highlight” of the program (Boston Globe).  With over 50 commissioned works for ensembles such as Cantus, the New England Philharmonic, and The Rose Ensemble, Abbie is also a two-time McKnight Artist Fellow, and has won grants from the American Composers Forum, ASCAP, and Jerome Foundation, and at age 31, was listed in NPR Music’s Top 100 Composers Under 40.  Abbie has been a Composer-in-Residence with New York State School Music Association, The Rose Ensemble, The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists, and Schubert Club. In 2019, she will be the American Composers Forum’s ChoralQuest composer, visiting schools around the U.S. to write new choral music with middle school singers.

Originally from Wisconsin, Abbie is a graduate of St. Olaf College (B.A.), the University of Minnesota (M.A.), and holds a diplôme from the European American Musical Alliance Institute in Paris, France. She lives in Minnesota, where she is Adjunct Professor of Composition at Concordia University-St Paul and executive director of Justice Choir.


View the Frequently Asked Questions about the Courtroom Concerts.

Seating is limited and first come first served. Please plan on arriving early. 

Schedule & Programs Subject to Change