Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra opens the 92Y season with two life-affirming works: a premiere by George Tsontakis and Mozart’s Concerto No 23, in A major with pianist Jeremy Denk.

Opening night of this season at the 92Y featured its two rather contrasting highlights in the first half of the evening: George Tsontakis’ New York premiere of O MIKROS, O MEGAS, and Mozart’s Concerto No.23 in A major with pianist extraordinaire, MacArthur Fellow Jeremy Denk, performing as soloist with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO).
Photos: Ilona Oltuski
In its 58th season, the SPCO certainly may be regarded as a very remarkable chamber ensemble of its kind, consisting of a virtuoso cast of musicians of vast versatility primarily performing without a conductor. The ensemble is devoted to a broad spectrum of repertoire, possessing a dynamic and much-lauded interest in innovative contemporary works (to date, the SPCO has commissioned 146 new works).
This affinity shone in Tsontakis’ adventurous four-part composition, which the composer himself described as: “…a reflection on recent world circumstances including the tumbling world, loss of friends and [his] own personal advancement into the foothills of an ageless maturity.” The American-born Greek composer is currently composer-in-residence at the Bard Conservatory and Aspen Music Festival, and has formerly been affiliated with Oxford Philomusica, Albany Symphony and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
The virulent showcased piece, the title of which while announced personally by Tsontakis sounded vaguely more like an antioxidant remedy than a contemporary composition, offered a vibrant sonic spectrum of all strings within a life-affirming cosmic cycle. The title is in fact loosely inspired by the opening lines of Axion Esti, by contemporary Greek poet Odysseus Elytis: “Attos O Kosmos, O Mikros, O Megas,” (This tiny world, this enormous world).
Says Tsontakis: “It is to me that within the quietest and most inwardly moments of the work, the world seems to fully impose its power and enormity. At the same time, the figurative ‘flip-side’ of my work’s title could well be ‘This tiny fleeting life, this huge eternal life…’ There are faster movements among the four and imploding episodes, but the heart and largeness of the work are made manifest in the second and last. All movements end quietly, and the last with my most preferred ending, an [open ended] ‘dot dot dot’ figure…”
SPCO has previously collaborated with the composer on three of his works’ world premieres, earning a 2005 international Grawemeyer Award and Grammy nomination. It is this kind of artistic continuum – a special mark of the ensemble and fundamental criteria of its creative outlook, as well as a pursuit of mutual growth with its associated artists – that has inspired many musicians, and has in turn had a significant impact on the ensemble’s advancement. Artistic partners of the ensemble throughout the years have included renowned soloists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Christian Zacharias, Joshua Bell and Dawn Upshaw.
Among the current flock of collaborating artistic partners are Martin Fröst, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thomas Zehetmayer and Jeremy Denk, who, in a most sparkling interaction brought out the full range of Mozart’s concerto to the stage – very different from Tsontakis’ piece, yet equal in energy and power.
The intense and gratifying interface between the pianist and the ensemble’s own Alexander Fiterstein is particularly worthy of note; Denk often leaned in sideways to listen closely to the essential clarinet part. The musicians know each other well. Since 2014 the pianist partners with SPCO in collaborative performances. Named one of the best of 2012 by The New Yorker,  his debut recording for Nonesuch paired old and new masterworks; Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.32, Op.111, with Gyŏrgy Ligeti’s Études.
This juxta-positioning tends to not only highlight the immense differences between two worlds,  but brings out many new sounding idioms in the traditional pieces, while giving gravity to the new. It seem to lend the listener a different perspective and outlook, leading to a deeper understanding of both - a comparative listening course.
As was felt in the evening's performance, there were connecting elements but also keen differences, sharpening the ear and mind. What comes before matters, setting  up a different mood for what is to follow; programming matters. And if what follows is as lively and refined as it was here, that also impacts how one feels about what had come before - making this a complete experience.

Touring nationally and internationally, SPCO has recently fortified its local presence with its own Ordway Concert Hall, but the orchestra’s dedication to community outreach, evidenced by its educational and family-oriented programming and notably affordable ticket subscriptions, has also motivated the organization to program accessible concerts in venues throughout the various neighborhoods of the Twin cities’ metropolitan area. Rather than investing in a grandiose orchestral format requiring highly-funded conductor posts, under the leadership of Managing Director and President Jon Limbacher, SPCO invests into its instrumental performers and nourishes wider audiences, “expanding accessibility even further by inviting children and students to attend unlimited SPCO concerts for free.” This, of course, is an approach shared by the 92Y with its many benefits and special offers like the “Majors for Minors” program, which allows for kids and teens aged 8-18 to attend concerts for free with only one adult ticket purchase.
It has been five years since SPCO performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and the orchestra was welcomed to the 92Y enthusiastically by a sold out hall; only  few audience members left after intermission before the Schubert Symphony, No.2 in B-flat major, which while proficiently performed, did not live up fully to the elated exhilaration of the evening’s first half.


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