Zola Jesus — Image via facebook.com/thespco

Zola Jesus at Amsterdam

With Ian Ding, Ashley Bathgate, Stephen Prutsman and SPCO Musicians

I am going to come right out and say that it’s pretty nice to live in a place where a concert of experimental rock songs arranged for string quartet, piano and electronics, paired with contemporary classical pieces for cello and percussion, sells out a month in advance, attracting an audience spanning four generations — which is precisely what happened Sunday night at Amsterdam Bar & Hall, where the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presented the first concert in its 2013-14 Liquid Music series.

Ian Ding and Ashley Bathgate — Image via facebook.com/thespcoThe first half of the program belonged to cellist Ashley Bathgate of Bang on a Can All-Stars and percussionist Ian Ding of New Music Detroit, who performed recent works by Annie Gosfield, Nick Didkovsky, Ted Hearne, and Andy Akiho. The highlight of the set was the world premiere of Hearne’s Furtive Movements, a piece in four continuous and contrasting sections that extracted a wide range of sounds from both musicians (with the help of a wine cork wedged between two of Bathgate’s strings) and built to a powerful climax before dissipating. Bathgate and Ding started off the set with an aggressive and clangorous excerpt from Gosfield’s Daughters of the Industrial Revolution, followed by Didkovsky’s Caught by the Sky With Wire, which consisted of seven short movements juxtaposing the energetic and polyrhythmic with the slow and meditative. After the Hearne premiere, Akiho’s 21 wrapped things up with propulsive energy.

After the intermission came Zola Jesus, the project of Wisconsin native Nika Roza Danilova, who performed arrangements of her songs by composer and pianist Stephen Prutsman, accompanied by Prutsman and a string quartet made up of members of the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra. As it turns out, Danilova’s music, which is normally bathed in electronics, has been given similar treatment before; just a few weeks ago, she released an album, Versions, featuring arrangements of many of the same songs for string quartet and electronics by producer J.G. Thirlwell.

Zola Jesus — Image via facebook.com/thespcoA major benefit of Prutsman’s arrangements was the way they made room for Danilova’s powerful, expressive voice to take center stage, giving songs like “In Your Nature” and “Collapse” greater emotional intensity than is evident in the original recordings, with their distant-sounding vocals. Also, interestingly enough, although these arrangements were for “classical” instruments, they often seemed to bring out the latent pop elements of Danilova’s music. Both of these characteristics are present on Versions as well, and Prutsman’s arrangements mainly differed from Thirlwell’s in a somewhat looser approach to rhythm, allowing Danilova’s vocals to float on top of the instruments, and the use of the piano, a welcome presence in most cases.

The Liquid Music series got off to a rocky start last year due to the SPCO’s lockout of its musicians, and this concert was one of several that needed to be rescheduled. But although the circumstances that caused that rescheduling were unfortunate, one could hardly think of a better way of opening the series’s first full season. What all of the musicians on stage seemed to share, despite coming from different starting points, was a commitment to crossing the boundaries of genre and, unlike some “crossover” attempts, doing so with complete artistic integrity. From where I was sitting, they succeeded.

Photos by Jayme Halbritter

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.