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REVIEW: SPCO’s Season Opener

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in a 2015 performance. Photo by Ash & James Photography.

Sunday’s SPCO concert began with a series of rambling and entirely unnecessary political remarks. It has become something of a fashion to use the podium in this manner, to which one might simply say that this has long-since become tedious and indulgent. Alternately, one might point out that the first piece on the program would have been much more interesting to hear about after the music had actually been heard. As the saying goes, “More rock, less talk.”

This past weekend’s program marked the formal opening of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s 2017-2018 season. The concert was quite enjoyable once the microphones were put away, and featured compositions by Jessie Montgomery, Alberto Ginastera, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Jessie Montgomery: Banner for Solo String Quartet and Chamber Orchestra

There is a moment in Montgomery’s Banner (which re-premiered in a new arrangement for a featured string quartet and chamber orchestra) when the energetic motion of its start comes to a halt. The motion dissolves in a series of sliding harmonics, hand drumming on the upright bass, and lightly bowed fragments in alternation. Then, melody invades – a snippet here, a fragment there, until it blossoms into a solo on the upright bass. The quartet takes over the music, and the whole ensemble strikes a heartbeat on the floor with their feet: ba-bump. This heartbeat quickens and takes the pulse of the piece along with it, until it becomes clear that it is the pulse.

The striking of this heartbeat – sometimes loud, sometimes buried and lost in the noise, is what leads us on a tour of music from countries and territories surrounding the United States. In its finale, the heartbeat becomes a flutter – and, as the man next to me said, “Wow” – and the piece was over. As an introduction to Montgomery’s work and the Catalyst Quartet, which was featured in the arrangement, it certainly makes one wish that the program had been a little longer with more of them in it.

Alberto Ginastera: Variacones concertantes for Chamber Orchestra, op. 23

The second piece on the program was Ginastera’s Variacones concertantes, a set of interludes and variations that featured a wide array of soloists. It’s a perfect piece for SPCO and for the Ordway Concert Hall’s acoustic, and its performance did not have a boring moment in it. The main theme was introduced in a stirring high melody played by Julie Albers on the cello, to the accompaniment of strummed chords by harpist Victoria Drake. From there, the piece swept away, organically morphing from one variation and interlude to another, a tour de force tour of the orchestra.

Contemplating the Variacones, where should one begin? Should one dwell on the Interlude for Strings that swept quietly down, lower, off of Albers’ last note, before swelling deliciously to a treble tone in the violins? Or contemplate how exciting it was to have the cellos and basses seize the melody and run with it into the lower octaves – but then the Humorous Variation for Flute was off and there was no time to think of the past. This next, spirited movement was led by flautist Julia Bogorad-Kogan through many fluttering passages, but before you could settle in, the melody was seized by clarinetist Christopher Pell – starting a toe-tapping race like a pleasant dash through the forest in springtime.

In the Dramatic Variation for Viola, Maiya Papach played elegantly through the double stops, showing off both the rounded tone of its upper strings and fantastic low end that no violin possesses. You start to realize that Ginastera really understood the viola as few composers do – and then the variation is over. If you missed that the Canonic Variation for Oboe and Bassoon had begun, you might be forgiven for wondering what the soft tremolo of the lower wind instrument was. Benjamin Atherholt played his bassoon so gently, with such a smooth tone next to the sweet melody of Jaren Atherholt’s oboe, that it reached the ears like a gentle summer breeze while enjoying a perfect little pastry on the patio.

Not so the Rhythmic variation, where Joel Vaisse’s trombone and Bill Williams’ trumpet solos echoed loudly from the first refrain. As walking pizzicati and rippling strings carried the titular rhythm away, the brass dipped in volume for a moment – long enough for Ruggero Allifranchini to sneak in a violin solo, which only retrospectively was recognized as the Perpetual Motion variation.

Then it was time for the horn pastorale. The French horn is notoriously difficult to play, but Karl Pituch would never let you know it with the soft swells of his shepherd’s horn calls. It’s a transcendental, peaceful interlude that makes you yearn for more horn time when the following Interlude for Winds begins. That interlude was not bad – but it wasn’t until Zachary Cohen’s double bass reprise of the theme took over that the desire to hear more French horn time slipped away.

The second transcendental moment of the concert came in a soft passage in the bass Reprise, when Zachary Cohen’s sweet vibrato had people leaning forward. Then, there was a small pause – and the final variation roared away at a razor-fast clip. The ensemble made no bones at masking the edges in strident passages, in which fragments of music and color battled for the spotlight. The smiles on some of the players’ faces in the final strokes leading to the end were echoed in the audience – a brilliant piece, brilliantly done.

Ludwig van Beethoven. Concerto in C for Piano, Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, op. 56

Duration and setup constraint aside, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto seemed oddly placed in the second half – organically, ending the first half would seem more logical. This has nothing to do with the featured soloists, but more with the accumulated momentum and energy that the Ginastera piece carried throughout its 25-odd minutes. The Triple Concerto stops to breathe; the Variaciones leave you breathless.

In his program notes for the Triple Concerto, Aaron Grad remarked “History has been unkind” to this work. Sunday’s audience needn’t have bothered being kind, superficially or otherwise – once the opening Allegro began, they were glued to their seats. The soloists were pianist Orion Weiss, violinist Ruggero Allifranchini, and cellist Julie Albers. While the concerto lacks some of the flashy showmanship of Beethoven’s early works, it is filled with passages that reward playing that is sensitive and nuanced. The soloists seemed to seek out, find, and dwell in these passages – never for too long, and always leaving you wanting just a little more. The concerto unfolded organically over its 35 minutes, replete with beautiful moments like Albers’ heart-strumming cello solo at the start of the second movement

Basil Considine