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Adventurous contemporary music on the SPCO calendar this weekend

This was to be the weekend of Thomas Adès for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra — and it still is, just without Adès in the flesh. The 39-year-old English composer, conductor and pianist has bowed out of his SPCO debut, vaguely citing “personal reasons” while continuing to honor other dates, including last Saturday’s piano recital at Carnegie Hall.

The show will go on with Donato Cabrera, assistant conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, wielding the baton on an adventurous program that includes two works by Adès, Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde” (The Creation of the World), and “Les Nuits d’été” by Hector Berlioz.

Adès’ “Three Studies After Couperin for Chamber Orchestra” initiate the concerts Friday and Saturday night at the Ordway. Comprising a trio of four-minute pieces adapted from 18th century French composer François Couperin’s keyboard works, these “Studies,” composed in 2006, were released on record for the first time last week by Adès’ loyally supportive label, EMI Classics. (Scroll down on this link to hear some samples.)

The other Adès composition on the bill is the more substantial “Chamber Symphony for 15 Players,” written while he was a teenager. At once audacious in its instrumentation and accessible in its structure, the symphony was Adès’ second serious work, after the song-cycle “Five Eliot Landscapes,” and certainly enhanced his wunderkind reputation.  Screws and erasers are placed on the piano strings to alter their sound, and a wine bottle, basset clarinet and accordion also vary the texture and color of this relatively short, four-movement opus. The SPCO’s program notes refer to the “jazzy insouciance” contained in its fast-slow-fast-slow progression, containing a dynamism that ranges from “flowing triplets and swoops” to the “quiet wheezing of the accordion.”

Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde” also has more than its fair share of jazz influences, particularly in the way the horn voicings come astride and collide with the underlying rhythm of the percussion in the more raucous portion of the piece. (Here  is the Chapman Chamber Orchestra performing that passage.) Influenced by his experience with the jazz nightlife in Harlem a year before this work for ballet was composed in 1923, Milhaud, like Adès, knew how to push the envelope on creativity without becoming so “postmodern” that he alienated his audience.

For fans of voice, there is Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’ete,” a song-cycle based on six poems by Theophile Gautier, which will feature tenor Thomas Cooley.

While the pullout of Adès is disappointing, Cabrera is a credible replacement. Before taking the position in San Francisco, the conductor co-founded and was music director for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), created to champion new works. Here is an excerpt of him conducting Elliott Carter’s “Triple Duo.”

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway CenterFriday and Saturday April 2 and 3, at 8 p.m., tickets $11-$59.

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