Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto hurt his arm recently, so he’s currently on rest from playing his instrument. But on Thursday evening at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s artistic partner proved there’s more than one string to his bow.
Standing at a conductor’s podium, Kuusisto started the concert with a pleasingly buoyant and athletic account of Beethoven’s overture to “Creatures of Prometheus.” As a conductor, Kuusisto blended spells of relative non-interventionism — after all, the SPCO excels at playing unconducted — with moments when an elegant sweep of his arms signaled a surge in volume, or a short stab betokened the need for sharpened accents.
The results were clean and invigorating in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, which bookended the program with the “Prometheus” overture. Both the symphony’s first movement and its minuet have rhythmically tricky openings, which sound muddy in many performances. Kuusisto and the SPCO players made light of them, clarifying the contours of Beethoven’s string writing without clumsy underlining. The ticktock of the quirky allegretto scherzando was a touch humorless in places. But the hurly-burly of the finale combined a rushing vitality with space to savor Beethoven’s more lyrical moments.
Overall, Kuusisto undoubtedly added value to the SPCO’s performance of the Eighth Symphony. An extra element of cohesion bound the interpretation together, focusing the prodigious amounts of energy Beethoven generates from simple seed material.
Also on the program were two works by living composers. Missy Mazzoli’s “You Know Me From Here” was written in 2012 for the Kronos Quartet. A version for string ensemble was played Thursday evening by SPCO soloists.
Mazzoli describes the piece as “a trek through chaos and loneliness to a place of security and companionship.” The work’s slithering assortment of downward glissandos conjured a sense of woozy displacement in “Lift Your Fists,” the opening section. Plaintive solos from cellist Joshua Koestenbaum and concertmaster Steven Copes probed introspectively in the central “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But a sense of uplift gradually permeated the eponymous closing section, where old ghosts slip into the distance and the horizon opens for new experiences.
Also about loss, Jimmy López’s “Guardian of the Horizon” was written for the composer’s late father. While disquiet underpinned the pointillistic jabbing of the string writing in the opening movement, rhythm itself — as in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony — gradually took over as a source of renewal and hope.
With a nod to the Baroque era, López calls “Guardian of the Horizon” a concerto grosso. Violinist Alexi Kenney and SPCO principal cello Julie Albers acted as soloists. And their tightly knitted interplay was riveting, a symbol of unanimity and persistence in eking out solutions to a problematic set of circumstances.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.