SPCO showcases American composers for post-Thanksgiving concerts – Twin Cities

Stella McDaniel

Sticking with its annual tradition, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra showcased an all-American lineup of composers for it’s post-Thanksgiving concert Friday evening. Anchored by a sumptuous rendition of the Suite from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” the program evoked roots of American sound — including jazz, blues, and Shaker melodies, even in its most experimental moments.

The concert began with a mournful note, as oboist Cassie Pilgrim triumphed in her solo in Samuel Barber’s Canzonetta for Oboe and Strings. Barber’s lilting music held within it an air of suspension that found sweetness upon its release. Pilgrim made her oboe sing in harmony with the orchestra. Indeed, the form of the work, a Canzonetta, is generally a name for a vocal piece. There were no singers, yet the work carried a vocal quality in its emotion and luster.

Barber died before finishing this last work — his student Charles Turner completed the orchestration after he died. Regardless of whose hands were ultimately responsible, the arrangement had wonderful play between soloist and the other instruments. One moment especially stood out, when a note Pilgrim played was picked up by viola, who carried the tune forward. Pilgrim also shone bright in the moments she played without accompaniment.

Violinist Eunice Kim played the second solo of the evening — Blue/s Forms for Solo Violin, without accompaniment. Named after the Black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson wrote orchestral, choral, instrumental and solo works that brought together classical forms with jazz and popular music. The piece Kim performed on Friday veered toward a jazzy Avant-garde.

Kim produced a bright sound with her instrument, even as she kept up with the furious speed of Perkinson’s composition. Filled with slides and fast-paced progressions, a hint of jazz could be heard in the frenzied notes. You could barely take a breath just watching Kim play, yet she managed to breeze through the intensely complicated rhythms with ferocious agility.

After the Perkinson solo, a quintet of wind and brass instruments performed “Red Clay & Mississippi Delta” by Valerie Coleman. Coleman’s piece referenced the blues, and somehow transformed the Ordway Concert Hall into a humid night in a dimly lit bar, filled with music and camaraderie. Its employment of call and response made a nod to African-American musical traditions. Clarinetist Sang Yoon Kim drew particular attention. His rhythmic movement as he played propelled the piece forward in its easy going jive.

Finally, the orchestra performed Suite from Appalachian Spring by Copland. Commissioned by modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham for her dance work of the same name, Copland’s music stands on its own as a piece to which you listen. From its very first moments, the melody created a sense of place. Having music conjuring images of a bucolic valley touched by the morning sunlight was not such a bad thing in the last days of November. The music transported its listeners to a warmer time full of green and growing things.

Central to Copland’s composition is a theme from a Shaker hymn called “Simple Gifts,” which comes near the end of the work. The simple tune is repeated in variations as it swells and builds. The work seems to offer a conclusion of sorts to all of the sections leading up to it. It’s simplicity and beauty provide a satisfying taste of America.

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