Pianist Denis Evstuhin was born in Russia, and he has a special feeling in his heart for Peter Tchaikovsky, whom he calls "the most iconic of all Russian composers."
So when he saw the 180th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's birth approaching a year ago, Evstuhin wanted to mark it.
Exciting plans were hatched for a special recital at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, where Evstuhin curates the music program.
Joining him on stage would be Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe and her husband, Osmo Vänskä the orchestra's music director, but also an outstanding clarinetist.
It should have been a grand, celebratory occasion in the beautiful main gallery of the museum, but the coronavirus abruptly stopped it.
"We had to cancel all events at the museum," Evstuhin says.
"A few months later, when it became clear that we would not be able to host the Tchaikovsky recital this year, I started thinking about an alternative open-air event."
Eventually Evstuhin hit upon the Bandshell at Town Green Park in Maple Grove as an ideal venue a wonderful space, he calls it.
There, on Saturday, Aug. 22, Evstuhin finally gets to host the birthday tribute that he wanted a program mixing music from Tchaikovsky's beloved ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker with a selection of songs, opera arias, piano works and chamber music.
Putting the event together has been considerably more time-consuming than it would have been a year ago, before the coronavirus started.
"Protocols require more volunteers to help our guests with registration, pre-concert screening, entering and exiting the amphitheater safely," Evstuhin explains.
"We also have to provide extra cleaning at common areas and high-touch points, and hand sanitizer and face masks if needed. And our program will not have the usual intermission."
All these additional measures are needed to comply with public health guidance on the coronavirus, which limits the total number of people attending the concert to 250, including the performers.
But the extra work is worth it, Evstuhin insists.
"I know that many of my friends and colleagues really miss classical musical concerts. Our goal was to minimize the risk of being exposed to COVID, and in my opinion a well-organized outdoor classical music event seems much safer than any other public event."
But do Evstuhin's musical associates think the same? Was it difficult to sign up the performers for his "Tchaikovsky 180" evening?
"Not at all," Evstuhin says. "We have several hundred talented musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera and other organizations who currently have no performance opportunities, and most of them miss their job."
Among the soloists showcased on the evening are Minnesota Orchestra cellist Silver Ainomäe, and his violist wife, Anne. Russian soprano Mlada Khudoley and Evstuhin's fellow pianist Anton Melnichenko also feature, as do dancers from the Minnesota Ballet Theatre and School.
"None of us suffer because of lack of food," Evstuhin adds. "But we all starve for opportunities to share our talents and inspiration with others."
With ticket sales so limited, Evstuhin is frank about the difficulties of making this special concert work financially.
"The Rubinstein Music Academy covered rental costs and provided a Yamaha concert grand piano for the evening," he says. "I would also like to thank all of the musicians for their willingness to perform for a reduced honorarium fee."
To cut costs further, a prerecorded soundtrack will be used for the ballet and concerto excerpts. A live orchestra would be logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive.
But the distinguished roster of soloists for "Tchaikovsky 180" will mean a high quality of musicmaking on the evening, Evstuhin promises.
And their involvement in the choice of music for the concert has led to an unusually varied and interesting program.
"I've asked all of our musicians to perform only their favorite compositions, based on their musical backgrounds and tastes," Evstuhin says.
So alongside well-known music from Tchaikovsky's ballets, there will be less familiar items, too movements from his piano works The Seasons and Children's Album, for example, and from the passionate but underappreciated Piano Trio.
"Tchaikovsky's most popular and familiar music does not always correspond with his best quality," Evstuhin says.
As evidence, he cites the hyper-popular 1812 Overture, whose deafening cannonades even Tchaikovsky found "very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit."
But the best of Tchaikovsky, "goes directly into people's hearts," Evstuhin adds, "and I can guarantee that every composition in our program is a true masterpiece."
Evstuhin's career as a pianist has been put on hold by the coronavirus, with all his scheduled concerts postponed for the foreseeable future.
But he is taking heart from the enthusiastic response he has already had to his "Tchaikovsky 180" initiative and the hunger that is still there among Twin Cities audiences for live performance.
"Following Governor Walz's recommendations, we offered only 200 tickets for the concert, and almost half of them sold in just a few days," he says.
"This event celebrates the art of one of the greatest composers in music history, and gives people hope that our cultural life goes on despite all the challenges of our time."
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22
Where: Maple Grove Bandshell (Town Green Park, 7991 Main St.)