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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.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway. Courtesy of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

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.

Soprano and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra artistic partner Dawn Upshaw. Photo courtesy of the artist

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.

Composer Donnacha Dennehy. Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records

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.

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