Kevin Puts & John Luther Adams — Images via kevinputs.com & johnlutheradams.com

Kevin Puts & John Luther Adams

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
With Steven Schick & the Miró Quartet

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has a particularly packed schedule of new music this April, with five 21st Century works spread out over three concert programs. This weekend, conductor Steven Schick joined the orchestra for the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s Become River and the regional premiere of Kevin Puts’s How Wild the Sea for string quartet and orchestra, featuring the Miró Quartet. Coupled with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and the overture from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, these works added up to a varied program of largely accessible music.

Beethoven’s first symphony doesn’t generally get as much attention as his later contributions, but the SPCO has an apparent affinity for it. (They’ve already put it back on their schedule for October.) In Thursday night’s performance, the musicians seemed to be straining a bit against Schick’s very slow tempo in the introduction, but as the first movement progressed, the group got on the same page. The third and fourth movements received particularly crisp and energetic performances.

Miró Quartet — Image via miroquartet.comPuts’s How Wild the Sea, an SPCO co-commission, was reminiscent of recent pieces by Adams’s namesake (the one who goes by just plain John Adams), deploying minimalist techniques without dwelling for very long in any one groove. Inspired by harrowing images from the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the piece was split into two movements in which the relationship between the quartet and the orchestra was treated very differently. In the melancholy first movement, every time the quartet tried to assert itself with a new theme, the orchestra would take over and transform the music, overwhelming the smaller group. In the faster, more determined second movement, the quartet and orchestra were more closely integrated. The SPCO and the Miró did an excellent job of navigating the piece’s complex rhythms and turbulent emotions.

For Become River, the orchestra reconfigured itself with the lowest-pitched instruments in the front and the highest-pitched in the back. In his introduction, Schick explained that the music was meant to evoke water flowing through a river delta, with the audience in the position of the sea. The piece began with some very high sounds from the violins and flutes, with the other instruments joining gradually until the entire orchestra was playing, at which point the higher-pitched instruments started to fall away, leaving the cellos and basses to close the piece. The music itself was largely an exercise in shifting orchestral colors as the instruments repeated a similar falling motif occasionally augmented by long held notes. The contemplative mood of Adams’s piece made a strong impression, and it would be interesting to hear it alongside its companion piece, Become Ocean for large orchestra.

After moving back into a more conventional configuration, the SPCO ended the concert with a vibrant performance of Rossini’s familiar overture. All told, by juxtaposing not only the old and the new but also two different takes on the new, the concert added up to an engaging experience and a strong start to the SPCO’s month of new music.

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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.