Friday's concert at the Ordway Center by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, led by former artistic partner Douglas Boyd, was inspiriting on several counts. It was encouraging to see Americans gathered on so-called Black Friday for a purpose other than shopping, and to see so many young people in the house. It was heartening to see that same audience applaud a newish work, Brett Dean's ironically titled "Pastoral Symphony," which, without ceremony, had just punched them in the gut. And it was gratifying to hear pianist Jeremy Denk play Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 1) and, for an encore, Charles Ives (the Beethoven-haunted "Alcotts" movement from the "Concord" Sonata) about as well as anyone can.
Friday's program began with Brahms' uniquely mellow, violin-free Serenade, Op. 16 -- a gift to viola sections (judiciously augmented in the SPCO's case) and to wind players everywhere. Slighter than Brahms' symphonies, the piece is sometimes patronized. But it's a gem, with an introspective Adagio that carries a suggestion of tragedy.
Boyd's account offered many felicities -- balances were consistently convincing, phrases fetchingly contoured -- but might have been more expansive; there are more moments to linger over in this music than he let on.
Dean wrote "Pastoral Symphony" after returning to his native Australia (following a 15-year stint as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic) and finding the natural environment under siege. It's a battering ram of a piece -- a vehement, unsubtle indictment of creeping urbanization that aims to change behavior, not to beguile the ear. At its center are Australia's gloriously musical birds, audibly threatened with extinction as their habitat disappears. "What at the beginning was birdsong," the composer has said of the work, "becomes by the end traffic noise within an aggressive industrial landscape." The piece's final gesture sounds like a guillotine.
"Pastoral Symphony" was perhaps an odd program choice for a day marked by turkey sandwiches. But Dean is clearly an artist of consequence, and the SPCO, having broken the ice, would do well to explore his output in greater depth.
In the Beethoven, Denk made a vivid impression even before his first entrance, so involved was he in the orchestral tutti that launches the piece. His often-playful performance, a study in relaxed articulateness, managed to give this familiar concerto a bit of an edge. Beethoven's long, mercurial first-movement cadenza was marvelously unfolded. And the orchestra, for its part, sounded gorgeous, never more so than in the beautifully voiced chord at the end of the Largo.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.