St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's opener as adventurous as ever

Jeremy Denk
Twin Cities Pioneer Press

A theater director once said to me that you choose his art form for one of two reasons: To get people to like you or to blow their minds. I was thinking of those divergent motivations while sitting in St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall on Saturday night at the opening concert of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's 2015-16 season.

Yes, one was George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" -- and works don't get much more crowd-pleasing -- but even that was presented in its far less familiar original form, and pianist Jeremy Denk took the cadenzas in all sorts of thrillingly imaginative directions. And when an orchestra welcomes its audience to a new season with the music of innovators like Darius Milhaud, Charles Ives and Bela Bartok, it's clearly out to give you something of substance, not just seeking your affection.

But you should give it to them nonetheless. For the SPCO has the kind of daring that the classical music world desperately needs right now. Yes, you'll find a fair measure of Mozart, Haydn and J.S. Bach at its concerts, but the orchestra seldom obeys convention in its interpretations.

It seems more interested in expanding your horizons and sometimes pushing you out of your comfort zone.

That certainly seemed the case Saturday, for neither Darius Milhaud's "Le Boeuf sur le toit (The Bull on the Roof)" nor Charles Ives' Third Symphony (nicknamed "The Camp Meeting") will ever be mistaken for a lullaby. The Milhaud piece is a sometimes chaotic pastiche of Brazilian styles the composer learned of while living there, while the Ives is a complex confluence of clashing rhythms and multiple melody lines that sound as if each is trying to assert its individuality.

It's a program that wears its jazz influences proudly, even on Bela Bartok's "Contrasts," a trio that the composer wrote partially with Benny Goodman in mind. Pianist Denk, violinist Steven Copes and clarinetist Richie Hawley all impressed on this difficult piece, Hawley following it up by lighting the fuse on "Rhapsody in Blue" with an adrenalin-raising opening glissando.

The 1924 version of that piece premiered by pianist Gershwin and Paul Whiteman's orchestra proved a marvelous showcase for Denk's talents, particularly during an explosive first cadenza and a second one that turned a familiar theme into something percussive, full of short, staccato brush strokes reminiscent of a pointillist painting. It's no wonder Denk and the SPCO received what might have been the most exuberant standing ovation I've yet encountered in its new hall. 

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