Friday, October 13, 2006

Stephen Prutsman at the Ordway

Composer and pianist Stephen Prutsman directed a stunning program of mostly jazz-influenced pieces with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Saint Paul tonight.

Prutsman's own Jazz Fantasy on the Theme B-A-C-H for piano and strings kicked off the evening, with Stephen on piano and Chris Brown playing bass, sometimes bowing and sometimes plucking walking lines. The four letters in German musical notation translate into Bb-A-C-B, which provides a nice chromatic figure for stepping out. The piano playing was nothing less than inspired and, although the piece is completely written out, the music is derived from improvisations by the composer.

I'm in a huge Prutsman fan, having also seen and heard the premier of "The Grand Excursion" at the Ordway in 2004, and his "Curious Hymns and Cosmic Spaces" earlier this year. In conversations with Stephen, I have since discovered that we share a passion for 1970s British progressive rock! (I'm the biggest Yes fan ever.)

But I digress. The Jazz Fantasy was followed by Darius Milhaud's La Creation du Monde, a cheeky momento of Milhaud's time in New York in the 1920s, featuring saxophone and a jazz drum set as well as the usual percussion. A very entertaining and refreshing piece that hasn't aged much in over 80 years.

The climax of the first half of the concert was Mauric Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, which is one of those spine-tingling pieces of music that are once heard and never forgotten. The central Andante assai has that langorous, inconclusive, suspended quality that makes Ravel's best music so mesmerizing and so emotionally complex. Prutsman and the SPCO players absolutely aced this work.

After the intermission, we came back for Mozart's Quartet in G Minor for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello, K. 478. This piece was apparently written with amateur musicians in mind, but turned out to be too challenging for both the fingers and the ears of that particular market. Really a delightful piece, though, with a lot of musical ideas being tossed around from instrument to instrument.

After the chamber music, we listened to Butch Thompson play piano rags in the Ordway mezzanine, including works by Fats Waller, Jimmy Yancey and Bix Beiderbecke. Not bad for a night out in the Mid West!

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