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Jeremy Denk, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
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.
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.