My favorite time to see the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), a Knight Arts grantee, in concert is when it’s premiering brand new work. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like I’ll not turn down an opportunity to hear them tackle a classic composer. But Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven — those are crowd-pleasers, familiar old friends with a guaranteed fan base. There’s something particularly electric about listening to these accomplished musicians perform work never heard before, with a live audience; there’s a frisson of risk, a charge of spontaneity in the playing that you just don’t get from tried-and-true repertory work.
So, on Friday night’s performance, the other offerings — by Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and even Beethoven — were, for me, wonderful but merely secondary to the main event: the world premiere of a new commission for the orchestra by a young Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, “If He Died, What Then”, sung by famed soprano and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra artistic partner Dawn Upshaw.
Dennehy’s piece is drawn from a mid-19th century memoir of the great Irish Famine, written by an American volunteer and witness, Asenath Nicholson. In particular, the work recounts one episode: a frail, old man’s persistent, but ultimately futile efforts to get assistance for his starving family from the bureaucratic “relief worker” in charge of delivering it. (You can hear a fascinating conversation about the work on Minnesota Public Radio’s website with the composer and Upshaw.)
The instrumentation is percussive, propulsive, discordant — but never sentimental. Rather, the sounds carry the listener forward, in sympathy with the halting but dogged progress of the man at the story’s center, who walks a seven mile stretch from his home to reach the aid worker and ask for food. Upshaw’s assured vocals serve as a through-line, delivering the sung narration with surprising lightness, considering the heavy weight of the subject matter and the formidable demands placed on her by Dennehy’s score. Indeed, the work as a whole is marked by its restraint, by an emotional reserve which, given the stark, human details of its terrible narrative, actually underscores the horror at its center — like the detached, impotent anguish of a fever dream.
The other performances on Friday night included a cerebral play with variations on Renaissance theme by Tippett, a prelude and raucous fugue for 18 strings by Britten and a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C — all thoroughly enjoyable.
You can hear Upshaw perform with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra again this coming weekend, singing Ravel and Debussy; shows are Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb.18 at 8 p.m. at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul, Minn. Find more information online: www.thespco.org.