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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Concert Review: Good Things in Small Packages

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra opens the 92nd St.Y season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The musicians of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Photo © 2016 courtesy the 92nd St. Y.
The chamber orchestra, a mid-sized entity that usually operates without the gesticulation and showmanship of a conductor, is something of a throwback. Performances evoke the 18th century, before Felix Mendelssohn introduced the idea of leading with a baton and when composers, soloists and kapellmeisters in France and Germany led orchestras from the keyboard or with the bow of the first violin. On Saturday night, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra made a visit to New York, playing the opening concert of the 92nd St. Y's subscription season in the opulent and bright acoustic of Kaufmann Concert Hall.

Although they are not as well known as their cross-Twin Cities counterparts the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul's Chamber Orchestra ranks among the finest of American ensembles of its size. They boast a rich, warm sound and a clear commitment to serious music-making. Also present for the occasion was New York-based pianist Jeremy Denk. Mr. Denk's whose dashing and yet reverent interpretations of repertory masterworks has made him something of a local hero among keyboard cognoscenti.

The concert opened with O Mikros, O Megas by Greek-American composer George Tsontakis. Mr. Tsontakis, a native of Astoria, Queens, was introduced before the performance, offering his audience a word of semi-apologetic explanation before the concert began. His work offered a contrast between large and small groups, using the five types of string instruments to create a complex tapestry of sound flavored with the occasional dollop of 21st century dissonance.

In both the "micro" sound of a few instruments or the "mega"-sonority of the full orchestra, Mr. Tsontakis' work showed the warmth and rounded tone quality of the St. Paul players to good effect. He painted the background with a broad brush of cellos and violas, making room for the violins to spin virtuosic lines of sound. These gossamer strands frazzled and knotted into complex but pleasing shapes, with the low instruments providing a shifting, buckling rhythmic carpet. In the last movement, the solo strings untied the knots with delicate grace, bringing the work to a harmonious close.

It is perhaps irony (or the bitter truth of music history) that Mr. Tsontakis was the least known, but by far the longest-lived composer on this program. His work was followed by the Mozart Piano Concerto in A Major, featuring Mr. Denk in the solo part. This is one of the more cheerful Mozart concertos, written in a sunny key with the pianist making playful contrasts with the orchestral instruments. The conductorless performance went without a hitch, as Mr. Denk made nodding contact with the first clarinet, the concertmaster and the rest of the orchestra bringing in the fluid sound of his playing exactly on cue.

The tender slow movement featured this soloist at his most expansive and lyrical, his fingers tracing the song-like melodic lines of the solo part, so much like the human voice in its phrasing and expression. The rapid-fire finale had his instrument back in playful mode, skipping through the repetitions of the quick rondo as if challenging the orchestra to keep up. This they did, with no visible difficulty.

The concert closed with the Symphony No. 2 in B Flat Major, penned by a 17-year-old Franz Peter Schubert. The St. Paul players made an excellent case for this work to be returned from the back corners of Schuberts vast catalogue. It has the spontenaety and song fullness of this composers better known works, but only appears in centennial celebrations of or the rare complete cycle of this composer’s extraordinary symphonies. Rounded, burnished horns, athletic clarinets and trumpets and the aforementioned superb  strings lent to the general feel of celebration over these four pleasing movements.

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