Emanuele Arciuli & Nicola Campogrande — Images via emanuelearciuli.com & campogrande.it

Campogrande’s Urban Gardens

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
With Emanuele Arciuli & Roberto Abbado

A season-opening concert is always a notable event, but Saturday’s concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was notable in more respects than usual. It marked the beginning of the SPCO’s final partial season in the Ordway Music Theater before March’s move into the new Concert Hall next door; the start of a complete Beethoven symphony cycle planned as a farewell to the current hall; the debut of the orchestra’s new principal cellist-designate, Julie Albers, and seven 2014-15 guest musicians; and the delayed world premiere of composer Nicola Campogrande’s piano concerto Urban Gardens, featuring pianist Emanuele Arciuli. All of this added up to a concert that clearly whetted the audience’s appetite for the season to come.

Campogrande’s premiere, which served as the centerpiece of the program, was a largely impressive contribution from a composer who has not attracted much attention on this side of the Atlantic. The music was accessible while still full of complexity and individual character, and while there were moments in which it seemed like the composer was indulging in virtuosity for its own sake, they rarely lasted long. The first movement, “On a Concert Hall Rooftop,” maintained a playful and slightly mysterious feel, with the piano and orchestra in close collaboration. The second movement, “In a Jazz Club Courtyard,” proved to be the most memorable, beginning with a jazz-tinged dialogue between piano, winds and percussion that built to a clangorous climax, followed by the entry of the strings in one of the most successful efforts I have heard to integrate the swing and syncopation of jazz with an orchestra. The third movement, admittedly less distinctive, brought things to a close with some contentious drama. Arciuli and the orchestra under artistic partner Roberto Abbado played superbly throughout, demonstrating a clear commitment to bringing the piece to life.

The remainder of the program was given over to Beethoven’s 7th and 8th symphonies, composed just two years apart but very different in temperament. The nostalgic, Haydnesque 8th, which came first, suffered a bit from muddy sound — making one look forward to the expected superior acoustic of the new hall — and briefly fell out of sync during the minuet movement. The dramatic 7th, on the other hand, received a rhythmically taut and rousing performance. The 7th is Beethoven at his most obsessive, with shards of melody getting repeated and transfigured all over the place, and Abbado and the musicians did an excellent job of coaxing out the individual character of each passage while contributing to a unified vision of the piece.

The SPCO has clearly spent some time charting out a path forward after the debilitating 2012-13 lockout and the departure of many of its longest-tenured musicians, and this season is shaping up to be the audience’s opportunity to see and hear where that path is headed. On the evidence of Saturday’s season opener, while there is still work to be done, there is also plenty to look forward to.

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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.