If you listened hard during the first work on the program at Friday evening's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert, you could hear the American national anthem playing.
Not, however, as we normally hear it: New York composer Jessie Montgomery, in a piece she calls "Banner," takes the spangled stars and slices up the bars, intercutting them with snatches of civil rights-era songs and tunes from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.
It isn't quite the searing deconstruction of the anthem that Jimi Hendrix improvised on his electric guitar at the Woodstock festival nearly half a century ago. But it comes close to being classical music's equivalent.
"Banner" got a crisp, zippy interpretation from the SPCO players, led from violin by Montgomery herself, striking in a black ballgown, blue leggings and silver ankle boots.
"Banner" is a timely composition, rescrutinizing what the American anthem means and doesn't mean, at a fractious period in the nation's history. It was a clever, provocative way of starting the new SPCO season.
Beethoven's genial Triple Concerto, by contrast, isn't the least bit controversial — except, perhaps, in its offbeat choice of violin, cello and piano as the solo instruments, a throwback to the multi-instrument concerto common in the Baroque period.
The SPCO's performance — unconducted, like the rest of the program — had a courtly elegance about it, inviting relaxation and a savoring of the music's playful, lyrical meanderings.
Two of the SPCO's own players, violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and cellist Julie Albers, took solo parts. The third was filled by young American pianist Orion Weiss, who sat center stage facing the orchestra and had the lid of his Steinway removed to make eye contact easier.
Unfortunately, it made listening to what Weiss was actually playing harder: With no reflecting board to focus the sound, the notes often evaporated toward the ceiling, leaving details of accent and articulation to be guessed at.
Allifranchini and Albers fared better, Allifranchini in particular impressing with the tensile sweetness of his violin playing and his alertness to the numerous instances of humor and mischief-making in Beethoven's concertante writing.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, however, was a rare opportunity to hear the Variaciones Concertantes of the 20th-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera.
The work is a set of variations on an original theme, each iteration putting a particular instrument or group of instruments in the solo spotlight.
As such, it was a perfect advertisement for the elevated levels of artistry and sophistication the SPCO can call on from its current crop of players.
The introduction, exquisitely shaped by cellist Albers and harpist Victoria Drake, particularly caught the attention, as did the remarkably introspective playing of Zachary Cohen in the double-bass solo at the work's conclusion.
The SPCO's darkly probing interpretation suggested that the Variaciones is a work of major stature and one that we should hear more often. It whetted the appetite for further fresh discoveries in the orchestra's 2017-18 season.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.