Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra makes comeback with canonical classics

By Joe Riina-Ferrie

Flatly boring and lazily played, the first half of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s (SPCO) Sunday afternoon performance put me to sleep. We heard Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, a piece that occupies the top spot on any Classical Music for Dummies disc and Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde,” a lackluster import of ’20s jazz to the orchestral format. Let’s chalk up the first half to bad programming, because the SPCO really can play.

Orchestras often plan jazz programs, and it’s tough to tell if they’re just pandering to some broader audience or if they genuinely care about the music in its own right. The first case presents some difficulties: Jazz people don’t want to hear jazz played by orchestra musicians, and classical people, open-minded or not, like seeing orchestras do what they do best, not trying out something else. It’s unclear if jazz programs appeal to other people. I think pianist-composer-arranger Steven Prutsman really thinks that the way jazz informs classical music is interesting and, more importantly, makes for some beautiful music. But the first half of programming—the throwaway Bach piece and the Milhaud rounding out the two pieces they actually wanted to play—was misguided.

So let’s start after intermission, when the concert really began. The first piece was Stephen Prutsman’s own Jazz Fantasy on the Theme B-A-C-H for piano and strings.

Now, Prutsman is an incredible pianist. He has solid technique and a good feel for the music. He can brood over slow passages and, when called upon, trill with the best of them. His vivacity and intensity were infectious; the orchestra, ready for some real action, backed up the musician with pluck. The strings and piano oscillated between dialogue and momentous collaboration. The piece itself was jazzy, delicate, impressionistic—despite the disparate material, the orchestra’s forceful performance delivered a feeling of completeness by the end.

Prutsman’s piece, debuting on this tour, was stunning, and his performance of Ravel’s Concerto in G for Piano and Orchestra was equally fresh and moving. This concerto by Ravel was also heavily influenced by jazz, especially Gershwin. The outer movements delivered some of the joy and groove you might get from good jazz. Otherwise, it was just good, snappy composition from a master composer.

The high point of the concert was the second movement of the Ravel. It contains some of the most delicately beautiful music I have ever heard, and Prutsman’s sensitive playing of the slow waltz tempo did it full justice.

Why was the Ravel successful while the Milhaud seemed decidedly second-rate? The Ravel stuck to what it was—a concerto for piano and orchestra. The elements taken from jazz were added color, not actual content. “La Création du Monde” tried in vain to recreate a jazz band’s exuberance in the sober atmosphere of a concert hall. Trite overuse of blue notes, sloppy saxophones, and a terrible approximation of swinging eighth notes turned the SPCO into a parody of classical musicians attempting to “cut loose.”

This concert, or at least the second half of it, was a successful opener to the second year of the SPCO’s three-year residency at the University of Chicago. They spent most of last week in town, reading through composition students’ work and going to neighborhood schools. Members of the orchestra demonstrated their instruments to wide-eyed third- and fourth-graders, playing solos from Peter and the Wolf and Fantasia, which still represent the best, and sometimes the only, exposure children get to classical music. Some players spent whole days with the kids, making dulcimers out of cardboard and twine.

Despite the fact that the concert seemed destined to be disappointing—or at least mediocre—the SPCO proved itself to be a top-notch ensemble. It was a thrilling performance, made all the sweeter by the orchestra’s anticipated return to campus in January, when they’ll be playing Mozart and Shostakovich—slightly more up their alley.