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Saint Paul Sunday presents

Mixed Company

by Vaughn Ormseth
September 18, 1999

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Mixed Company

In these plugged-in, niche-crazed times, people seem to need the warm variety of real human contact more than ever. It's currently fashionable at many New York cafés to request a larger table and dine with strangers. And any good host knows that the liveliest gatherings include guests whose different outlooks and backgrounds will add conversational spice.

Musically speaking, such intimacy has defined Saint Paul Sunday from the beginning. When listeners tune in each week, they get a glimpse of artists as people not so unlike themselves performing music all over the classical map. By juxtaposing, say, a Romantic favorite and the work of a dynamic living composer, new insights can emerge. Often the two pieces share a common ancestry but venture into surprisingly different territory, and the contrast sparkles.

As its title suggests, Saint Paul Sunday's just-released CD Mixed Company builds upon both the series' weekly bonhomie and its eclectic weekly pairings. "There are so many nice moments in this collection, some really wonderful connections," says SPS senior producer Mary Lee, who also served as the recording's executive producer. "The works create a new context for each other."

The performances on Mixed Company are drawn from Saint Paul Sunday's capacious archives, and each reflects the expressive license artists often comment on when appearing as guests of the program. The works combine the rigorous standards of high-quality recordings with the passionate elbow-room of live performances.

"There's always an emotional thread to our CDs," continues Lee, referring to Mixed Company's predecessors American Air and Sleepers Awake. "I'd say this one has a very lighthearted feeling, though with some definite moments of quiet." Perhaps much of this carefree quality flows from the character of chamber music itself, which classical composers have long reserved as a sanctuary for their most personal expressions.

That emotional immediacy abounds in Mixed Company - dancing here, proclaiming or whispering there - and often locates its poetry as much in the electricity between performances as it does in the performances themselves. Three works early on in the recording, for instance, share not only a common engagement with folk origins and themes, but also an apt musical resonance.

The first is the night-charmed intermezzo from Dvorák's Quintet in G performed by the Emerson String Quartet and double bassist Edgar Meyer. Dvorák, born to Czech peasant stock, is renowned for his masterful development of native music, and even where such borrowing isn't certain, its larger atmosphere is undeniable. The intermezzo's placement in Mixed Company before a performance of high-spirited Moravian folk tunes by a young Czech quartet heightens both Dvorák's genius and the pleasure that can be found in pure sources. And the work that follows next - living British composer Peter Maxwell Davies's elegy Farewell to Stromness as performed by pianist David Owen Norris - shows that human themes still lend music a piercing beauty. Stromness is a village in the Orkney Islands which was forced to evacuate to make way for a nuclear power plant, and Davies's tribute to it shares both preceding works' candor.

At least two other sequences on the CD seem especially auspicious (listeners will no doubt find their own as well). The young Korean violinist Chee-Yun gives a dazzling account of the minuet and finale movements in Igor Stravinsky's Suite Italienne, a work which, though it scandalized the ballet impresario who suggested its creation, went on to lasting popularity and influence. By some alchemy, the Haydn presto scherzando that comes next shares a similar ebullience - "one immediately hears in [both] the same wit and delight in the sheer joy of music making," in the words of SPS host Bill McGlaughlin.

In a later Mixed Company tableau, contemporaries Maurice Ravel and Manuel de Falla evoke a keen sense of place - in this case Spain. It's captivating to discover how distinctively each man crafted Spanish culture into spellbinding music. Though the pantoum movement from the thoroughly French Ravel's only trio is textured with fire, it is perhaps less physical, as though refracted through the memories of the composer's Basque ancestors, than are the vivid narratives offered by Falla immediately following. Violist Kim Kashkashian conjures the sense of Falla's Nana and Canción scenes with a haunting sincerity.

One of the marks of great music is timelessness - the new circumstances it continues to reveal itself in are less important than the listening of those who cherish it, but fresh surroundings often summon latent ideas, colors, and lines. All of the 14 works in Mixed Company are worlds of their own even as each invites us to experience it in the new light of new companions.

1.  Franz Schubert: Quintet in C Major for Strings, D. 956-III. Presto;
Juilliard String Quartet; Bernard Greenhouse, cello
2.  Anoton Arensky: Trio in D Minor, Op. 32-II. Scherzo: Allegro Molto; Eroica Trio
3.  Antonín Dvorák: Quintet in G Major for Strings, Op. 77-II. Intermezzo (Notturno); Emerson String Quartet; Edgar Meyer, bass
4.  arr. Pavel Fischer/Radim Sedmidubsky: Moravian Folk Tunes; Škampa String Quartet
5.  Peter Maxwell Davies: Farewell to Stromness; David Owen Norris, piano
6.  Igor Stravinsky: Suite Italienne - Minuetto e Finale; Chee-Yun, violin; Akira Eguchi, piano
7.  Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet No. 27 in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4-IV. Presto Scherzando; Mendelssohn String Quartet
8.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Much Ado About Nothing, Suite, Op. 11-III. Scene in the Garden; Gil Shaham, violin; Rohan De Silva, piano
9.  Sergei Taneyev: Quartet No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 4-IV. Intermezzo: Andantino; Orion String Quartet
10.  Maurice Ravel: Trio-II Pantoum; Paris Piano Trio
11.  Manuel de Falla: Suite Populaire Espagnole-Nana; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Charles Abramovic, piano
12.  Manuel de Falla: Suite Populaire Espagnole-Cancion; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Charles Abramovic, piano
13.  Franz Schubert: Quintet in C Major for Strings, D. 956-IV. Allegretto; Juilliard String Quartet; Bernard Greenhouse, cello
14.  Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in G-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 10; David Finckel, cello; Wu Han, piano

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and other classical music CDs.