SPCO review: Pekka Kuusisto’s many talents soar in ‘The Lark Ascending’ and world premiere of ‘Dreaming a world’s edge’

Have you ever wondered what climate change sounds like? Maybe it’s a reverberating crack of breaking ice, or perhaps barreling winds. Does it sound like ominous haze? How do you hear too-thin air? These sounds were evoked in Cindy Cox’s new orchestral work, “Dreaming a world’s edge,” premiering with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra this weekend. Inspired by the landscape photography of Thomas Joshua Cooper, Cox’s work captures the majesty of the natural world, particularly in areas traversed infrequently by humans. The music also holds in it a warning — one that thunders with a startling rupture.

The piece is one of three presented in an evening featuring Finnish musician Pekka Kuusisto, an artistic partner with SPCO. Kuusisto brought his many talents to the concert, as a conductor, violinist, singer, and even as a whistler.

While normally the SPCO plays without a conductor, this concert saw Kuusisto leading the musicians with spunky focus. Kuusisto has a relaxed style, often bearing weight on one leg as he conducts with flat hands and keen concentration.

The beginning Cox’s work slaps and shakes, with bursts of rhythm. A dread hovers around the music. Eerie slides lead into lumbering brass. Later, melodies saunter in and out of the landscape, with moments of soaring strings and cinematic vibrancy.

In the second piece, Pekka Kuusisto performs the solo violin part in “The Lark Ascending,” by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, originally composed in 1914 for violin and piano, later to be arranged for solo violin and orchestra after World War I.

The work traverses a journey of emotions. In its beginning, the music holds a pastoral quality, filled with longing. Kuusisto just brushes the violin with his bow, making a ghostly sound with his instrument. Later, the volume increases, and we hear the call of the lark in Kuusisto’s playing. In the last solo section, he plays without the accompanying orchestra with a weightless sadness to his violin’s tones.

Following Kuusisto’s solo on Friday night, he performed a short encore unlisted in the program called “Fanfare for Trees,” written by Gabriel Kahane, who, like Cox, attended the performance. The New York-based Kahane had performed at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis earlier in the week, with SPCO’s principal cellist Julie Albers as the opener.

Like in his playing of Vaughan Williams’ piece written a century before, Kuusisto’s performance of Kahane’s short solo piece for violin utilizes the instrument’s hollowness, rather than fullness. His violin whistles with harmonic, whispery notes. At times the music sounds downright creaky. Showing off his varied skills, Kuusisto whistled while he played, and later sang the tune.

The concert concludes with Symphony No. 3 by 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc. A successful concert pianist and teacher, Farrenc was nearly forgotten until the late 20th century. Lucky us. The symphony is splendid, full of robust vigor and dynamic ranges.  Sang Yoon Kim played a lively clarinet solo in the second movement, with a muted tympani propelling the composition forward. Toward the end, the pace increases toward a thrilling, breakneck speed conclusion.

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Pekka Kuusisto Plays “The Lark Ascending”

What: The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Pekka Kuusisto Plays “The Lark Ascending”
When: 8 p.m. both live and streamed online Saturday May 21; 2 p.m., Sunday May 22 in person
Tickets: $12-50; thespco.org
Where: The Ordway, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

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