What is home? That question underlies Tapestry19, the first in a series of biennial festivals curated by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra whose aim is "to explore a culturally resonant theme within our community."
If Friday evening's concert at the Ordway is anything to go by, Tapestry also aims to break the boundaries that can make classical music seem elitist to those outside looking in.
All three main works on the program were by living composers, and one was by PaviElle French, a soul artist and St. Paul native who grew up in the Rondo area.
French's "A Requiem for Zula" recalled and commemorated her mother in a 15-minute work conceived for jazz vocalist, piano and orchestra. The piece was almost impossible to categorize because it had a strong whiff of originality about it.
French herself led the premiere from the piano and sang the vocal. "Requiem" is probably best described as an extended soul ballad, with elements of blues, scat and even rap stirred into French's openhearted, confessional stream of reminiscence.
Michi Wiancko's orchestrations added further spice, with a chattering woodblock and rattling snare drum among the shots of color illustrating French's text.
The title "Requiem" might suggest a gloomy melancholia. But while French's piece had heartache in it, it glowed with emotional generosity and uplift — and the conviction that a life of love lives on in the influence that it has on other people.
Kinan Azmeh's "Don't RipEat After Me" went to darker places, namely the Syria the composer grew up in during the 1970s and '80s.
His 20-minute work fell into three sections, with short films by visual artists Khalil Younes, and Kevork Mourad complementing each of them.
Azmeh led the performance — another world premiere — from center stage, playing an electronically enhanced clarinet with an echo loop and discreet amplification.
His ululating summons opened the piece, and he dominated the central movement, where his keening extemporizations were counterpointed by images of monochrome landscapes sketched by an anonymous artist.
Azmeh describes "Don't RipEat After Me" as "a piece based on nostalgia I'd rather not have" — home as a source of painful memory commingled with pleasure. It made a powerful, lingering impression.
Michael Abels' "Delights and Dances" was the perfect counterbalance, a rattle bag of influences including jazz, bluegrass and Latin American.
It featured a string quartet of SPCO soloists with string accompaniment in a concerto grosso-meets-hoedown format, the soloists swapping ever hotter licks as the dances got more fevered.
Led fierily by violinist Eunice Kim, the quartet enjoyed itself royally, with guest cellist James Wilson supplying a couple of particularly sizzling interventions.
Shorter, more mellifluous works by Charles Ives and Antonin Dvorák punctuated the contemporary pieces, allowing SPCO cellist Sarah Lewis to step forward for a mellow account of Dvorák's "Silent Woods."
Its whispering nostalgia suggested home is sometimes located in the memory, far from a more troubled and conflicted present.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.