SPCO, Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider earn accolades

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Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider with the SPCO

MPR Photo/Melanie Burford

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra performed Friday night in the first Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall on Friday night.

Anthony Tommasini reviewed the concert for the New York Times as part of a larger piece on the Festival. Here’s what he had to say:

On Friday night, for the sixth of the festival’s seven concerts, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra offered a program that had no title and no discernible theme. Yet the four pieces presented made sense as a group. It opened with Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra, a 1946 work from the composer’s Neo-Classical period, and ended with Haydn’s “London” Symphony, a landmark of the Viennese Classical era. These works framed a recent piece for voice and chamber orchestra by Maria Schneider, the jazz composer and big-band leader, and a group of five folk songs for soprano and string orchestra by Bartok, both featuring Dawn Upshaw.

Instead of relying on a music director, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra collaborates with five artistic partners, including Ms. Upshaw, who had asked Ms. Schneider to write her a piece. The resulting work, “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” is a setting of poems by a revered Brazilian poet translated into English by the poet Mark Strand. Written in 2008, this was Ms. Schneider’s “first classical venture,” as she put it in a program note. She conducted it here.

The dark and vivid first poem describes a group of people making fun of photos in a dusty old album of “the dead in frock coats.” The settings of all four poems, which include a wry romantic roundelay (“Quadrille”), flow together in this organic 25-minute work. Ms. Schneider sets the words to sultry music lightly touched with jazz in the style of Gil Evans.

The harmonic writing is piercing and precise; the mood ambiguous, at once pensive and restless. The vocal writing deftly blends quasi-conversational phrases with soaring lyricism. The only miscalculation may have been the stretches, including a Prologue, in which the soprano sings wordless phrases on “ah” and “da-dee” sounds, which came across as generic, even though Ms. Upshaw sang alluringly, like a jazz vocalist leading an orchestra.

She was in better, more penetrating voice for the Bartok folk songs. Richard Tognetti’s string orchestra arrangements lent depth to the accompaniments, while still retaining some of the bite of the original piano parts.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra often plays without a conductor, as it did here in the Stravinsky and Haydn works. These impressive musicians gave vibrant, natural performances of both pieces. Still, the playing might have been a little crisper with a conductor leading the way.

The SPCO performance was broadcast live on Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station. Did you miss it? No worries, you can find it here.

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