Mozart and Haydn drew on folk dances for their orchestral works and chamber music. Mahler used klezmer — Jewish dance music from Eastern Europe — in his symphonies. And then in the early decades of the 20th century there was the short-lived craze for symphonic jazz.
For the first concert of its 57th season Saturday night at the new Ordway Concert Hall, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra built a program on concert music that uses popular and folk idioms. Two of the works were composed in the 1920s: Milhaud's ballet "The Bull on the Roof," which incorporates popular music from Brazil, and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which, to quote a publicity slogan of the time, "made an honest woman out of jazz."
One of Charles Ives' richest achievements, his Symphony No. 3, "The Camp Meeting," based on New England hymn tunes, also was played, as was Bartok's Contrasts for Violin and Piano, which quotes Hungarian folk dances.
This made an interesting mix. To be sure, the ideology surrounding some of these works at the time of their inception, the idea that popular music — the vernacular, as it's known in academic circles — is elevated or purified or rendered legit through its embrace by "serious" composers, is no longer a useful notion. Much popular music today is quite serious — and not especially popular — while some classical (or concert) music is frivolous. And jazz, now thought of as an art form rather than folk music, while remaining a more or less honest woman, hasn't been truly popular since the Swing Era.
The bandleader Paul Whiteman considered Gershwin's "Rhapsody," which he commissioned, to be the music of the future. Today it seems dated, a relic of the 1920s Jazz Age. Still, a good performance of the sort the orchestra gave Saturday night, with Jaime Martin conducting and pianist Jeremy Denk as soloist, can underline this all too familiar work's essential vitality and perhaps even its charm.
Wisely, Ferde Grofé's original jazz band orchestration was used. It's played almost as often these days as Grofé's pops-concert version of 1942, probably because it sounds more authentic. Martin's tempos were generally brisk — no sentimentalizing of the main theme. Denk played with a kind of swaggering bravura, fleet and light, carefully nuanced and yet spontaneous and playful in the manner of Gershwin's own recorded performances of the work but, thankfully, without Gershwin's sledgehammer touch. Richie Hawley gave the opening clarinet flourish just the right kind of boozy languor.
Earlier, the gifted Hawley joined Denk and concertmaster Steven Copes in a vivid reading of Bartok's Contrasts. Before that, Martin, who has a good rapport with this orchestra, skillfully engineered the ever-shifting tempo changes in the Milhaud, and he moved the Ives symphony with assured pacing and delicate color. The "distant church bells" at the end, however, were a little too distant, as if the source might be a small church on the far side of Anoka.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.