Jaime Martín & Jeremy Denk — Images via imgartists.com & opus3artists.com

The SPCO Opens a New Season

Milhaud, Ives, Bartók & Gershwin

Efforts to bridge the seemingly gaping chasm between classical and popular music are all the rage these days, but the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra‘s season-opening concerts this past weekend served as a reminder that there’s nothing new about the desire to bring these musical worlds closer together. Conductor Jaime Martín and pianist Jeremy Denk joined the SPCO for a program of four works, all from the early 20th century, that — with varying degrees of success — incorporate influences as diverse as jazz, folk, and hymn tunes.

The concert opened with Darius Milhaud’s Le Bœuf sur le toit, a ballet score influenced by the music the composer heard during his two years in Brazil during World War I. It’s a relentlessly repetitive piece — the opening theme appearing 12 times, pretty much verbatim though in different keys, in under 20 minutes — and though the SPCO played it with plenty of gusto, it frankly wore out its welcome after a while.

Thankfully, the Milhaud was followed by a much more engaging piece, Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3. Among Ives’s works, this may be the one that strikes the most perfect balance between his grounding in the European classical masters (especially Dvořák), his love of American music, and his dense and dissonant brand of modernism. The SPCO turned in a beautiful rendition that gave each of these elements their due, weaving them into a fascinating whole. Adding to the experience were Denk’s comments beforehand, insightful and entertaining as always, which provided useful entry points into the music.

After the intermission, Denk and SPCO concertmaster Steven Copes were joined by clarinetist Richie Hawley for Béla Bartók’s Contrasts. For me, Bartók’s pieces — at least from this stage of his career, in the 1930s — always seem to start off thorny and then lighten up over time, though I can’t entirely tell whether that’s due to any change in the nature of the music or whether it just takes me a while to get used to it. In any case, though the piece’s first few minutes were a bit jarring, there was much to enjoy later on, with Hawley and Copes doing a fine job with their respective cadenzas and all three musicians turning in a haunting take on the second movement.

After opening with the least-known work on the program, the SPCO and Denk wrapped things up with the most familiar, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in Ferde Grofé’s original jazz-band orchestration — an interesting choice for an orchestra with only one brass player. Augmented by many guest musicians, the SPCO rose to the task, providing a colorful backdrop to Denk’s energetic work at the piano. Gershwin’s piece may be almost as repetitive as Milhaud’s, but the material is more memorable, and he did more with it. Denk took things a step further in his second cadenza, subjecting Gershwin’s themes to a particularly percussive, modernist interpretation that whetted the audience’s appetite for the rousing finale — a satisfying end to a concert that covered a great deal of ground in under two hours.

Jaime Martín photo by Alexander Lindström
Jeremy Denk photo by Michael Wilson

Published by

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.

One thought on “The SPCO Opens a New Season”

Comments are closed.