“That was pretty poppy,” an usher said to me as I donned my coat last night. “Wasn’t it?”
Well, yes, I guess it’s true that most concerts presented by a wing of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra don’t end with Metallica covers. It’s also true that Anna Meredith is just as comfortable playing in a rock club as a concert hall; maybe even more comfortable, classical instruments and “composer” appellation notwithstanding.
Last year in Austin, Texas, I saw the ecstatic performance (in a very club-like theater) that left NPR’s Bob Boilen almost at a loss for words, calling her “the best artist I’ve seen at SXSW and one of the most creative bands I’ve seen in years.” The SXSW crowd is used to masses of roiling sound; what they’re not as accustomed to is the sense of lucid intelligence and sheer fun that Meredith and her four bandmates bring to her creative compositions.
All five were at Aria last night, making their Minnesota debut as part of the Liquid Music series in a co-presentation with the Walker Art Center. A strong turnout filled rows of chairs and spilled over into standing room at back and around the sides. Unfortunately, Meredith’s repeatedly expressed wish to get the crowd dancing just wasn’t going to come true: too many chairs, too well-lit, too weeknight, maybe too “orchestra,” I don’t know.
The performance shared its title with Meredith’s 2016 album Varmints. The brainier members of the music press have been flipping their collective wigs over the album, which earned a Best New Music designation from Pitchfork: it’s Meredith’s debut album, but it builds on her established history creating music in the classical world. “I think I was meant to be writing a string quartet, but I wrote this instead,” shrugged Meredith after playing a typically gallomping new piece.
Meredith often gets tagged as a “maximalist” composer, which misleadingly makes it sound like her music is the opposite of minimalism. In fact, Varmints follows squarely in the tradition of accessible minimalists like Philip Glass, who build palaces of sound — alternately sparkling and blaring — on repetitive structures. When she veers more into rock, Meredith also recalls the bands that came out of Glass’s ’70s scene in New York: Talking Heads, Television.
She’s not from New York, though: she’s from Great Britain, which means she and her band had to endure “visas, nightmares, and Trumps,” as she put it last night, to get here. Her group comprises, in addition to herself, cellist Maddie Cutter, tuba player Tom Kelly, electric guitarist Jack Ross, and percussionist Sam Wilson. Part of the charm of an Anna Meredith show is how conspicuously the five delight in making music together.
Last night, they took the stage dressed in silver from head to toe, looking like they could be the house band at Ten Forward. The costumes simultaneously conveyed a sense of occasion and a sense of humor, the perfect tone to strike for the music that followed.
Appealing as Varmints is, this music really comes alive in person, when you can see how it all comes together — if you can follow Meredith jumping from her electronics to her glockenspiel to her oboe. All of the members have their moments to shine, although it’s Ross’s startling virtuosity that most astonishes. (At one point, Meredith thanked him for playing “the hardest guitar solo in the world.”)
In addition to material from the album, Meredith played a couple of new pieces — including “Ribbons,” a gently beautiful song built on her own ethereal voice. The Metallica cover that closed everything out was “Enter Sandman,” with the theme to the British cop show The Bill interposed, and Cutter plucking a little Chordettes intro for good measure. It was an apt conclusion to a night of sweetly cacophonous sonic dreamscapes.
Meredith is now headed to Carleton College for a residency that includes a free show tomorrow.