Quite the mix at SPCO: Mozart, Mother Goose, marimba

Brad Lubman
Photo by Paul Miller
Guest conductor Brad Lubman worthy of attention.


When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra introduces a new face, it’s worth paying attention. Classical fans who didn’t know pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard before his first appearances last season as an SPCO artistic partner can now find him mentioned in glowing terms most anywhere in the international music press.

Like Aimard, conductor Brad Lubman comes to St. Paul with a reputation as a new music specialist. Next week he’ll lead an all-contemporary concert featuring pieces by fellow New Yorker John Zorn, uncompromising French modernist Pierre Boulez and Lubman himself.

But the program that will introduce Lubman to the Twin Cities this weekend includes Mozart, Mother Goose and a marimba. He and the orchestra are performing Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 27” (with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout), Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and a suite of Renaissance pieces Lubman arranged for marimba, vibraphone, piano and chamber orchestra.

As far as Lubman is concerned, it’s the right kind of calling card.

“I’ve never considered myself a new-music specialist. Early in my career I got called upon to do a lot of new music conducting. It was both wonderful and a hindrance. I was a working professional from an early age making a great living. But you get typecast. It’s very difficult to break out of that. New music has always interested me. I’ve been a composer since high school. But my background is classically trained.”

Lubman, a Long Island native, is now 45. “As of two years ago,” he says, “things started to open up. I’m starting to have the opportunity to do a range of repertoire. To come here is a great treat.”

The breadth of Lubman’s interests helps explain why the SPCO invited him here. “He is a really important conductor, especially in the new music world,” says John Mangum, vice president for artistic planning. “People like that bring an interesting perspective to the standard repertoire. They know not only the line that leads up to Ravel — Beethoven and Berlioz and Brahms — but what comes afterward as well.”

The old made new
“I want to change the dynamic,” Lubman tells the orchestra as he launches the second half of Thursday’s rehearsal. He’s not talking about his career path, though. He wants the players to begin his Sacred and Secular Suite less softly. “Mezzo-forte is stronger. It makes a statement,” he says.

Lubman’s scoring for marimba and vibraphone also makes a statement. As he writes in the SPCO program book, he chose those instruments “in order to have the interesting juxtaposition of early music with something of our own time.”

To my ears, they made a surprisingly unobtrusive statement, and a pleasing one. Where some arrangements apply a plush orchestral blanket that smothers the life out of early music, here the percussionists’ mallets striking wood and metal only enhance the sense of pulse and melodic line inherent in the tunes. Lubman’s sources are seven 15th- and 16th-century pieces by Josquin des Prez and Guillaume Dufay.

In a nod to the modern era, Lubman breaks up the melodic line, passing it from one group of instruments to another. But, he acknowledges, the suite is a far cry from the avant-garde.

How it plays with the players
“This is familiar pitch language,” he says. For the members of the orchestra, “it’s like getting used to a regional dialect. You know the language. It’s the dialect that takes a moment to get used to. It’s not a big challenge.”

It helps, says Lubman, that the SPCO’s players have lots of experience playing under early music specialists such as Christopher Hogwood and Nicholas McGegan.

“I’ve only done the piece once before — in 1992 at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. I was the director of a graduate orchestra,” recalls Lubman. “I never had the opportunity to do it again but I always had it in the back of my mind. The SPCO musicians seem very enthusiastic about it.”

Lubman’s “Sacred and Secular Suite” is front and center tonight (Friday) when the SPCO plays at Wayzata Community Church and again Saturday at the United Church of Christ in St. Paul.

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