He may not know it yet, but newly inaugurated President Trump already is exerting an influence on classical music.
The English composer Sally Beamish had, she says, just begun writing the finale to “City Stanzas,” her Third Piano Concerto, when news of the American election verdict reached her.
The result? A “grotesque and hollow” movement which becomes gradually “more and more despairing,” “with a queasy irony.”
That’s how Beamish describes the politics of her concerto, which had its world premiere at a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert in the Ordway Music Center in St. Paul on Friday morning. What about the music?
The “Trump” finale is undoubtedly a sharp, teeth-gnashing piece of composition. Discordant brass motifs gave way to scattershot snare rhythms and a throbbing kick drum underlay, summoning the darkened cityscape of Beamish’s imagination.
Amid the murky alleyways, fractured piano figurations scurried in an affrighted fashion, glintingly delivered by the nimble, athletic fingers of pianist Jonathan Biss.
Biss commissioned Beamish’s concerto and, following the music from a computer tablet propped on the piano’s music stand, played it in a bracingly athletic fashion.
The frequently percussive piano part suited Biss’ angular style of phrasing, and his scrupulous balancing of left and right hands revealed plenty of the finer detail in the work.
The middle movement, “Requiem,” was a highlight. Weaving reminiscences of two recently deceased friends — one of them Beamish’s fellow composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies — into the narrative, Beamish distilled a quiet if troubled sense of dignity and contemplation.
In a score peppered with tricky time signatures and syncopations, conductor Mischa Santora secured excellent ensemble playing and a biting attack from the SPCO players. “City Stanzas,” timing out at 20 minutes, is a punchy, pugnacious addition to the concerto repertoire and should travel successfully well beyond the Twin Cities.
The piece on which it’s loosely based, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, came after the interval. Beside “City Stanzas” it seemed a remarkably insouciant and innocent work, many worlds removed from the shard-strewn urban environment mapped out in Beamish’s composition.
Biss reveled in the switch of ethos, dispatching the outer movements with a burbling vivacity. Pianists who play Beethoven concertos without a conductor usually need to cut swiftly away from solo passages to wave their arms at the orchestra, cuing and encouraging the players.
With the SPCO, super-adept at operating without a conductor, that’s unnecessary. Biss appeared to enjoy the freedom of expression this gave him, slotting in an extended road-trip of a cadenza in the opening movement by way of celebration.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.