Conductor Douglas Boyd, the genial Scot whose concerts this weekend are the last of his six-year tenure as an artistic partner of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, has been more consequential for the ensemble than his short stay here each season would seem to allow. In neighborhood venues and Carnegie Hall, in the recording studio and as a linchpin of last January's international festival, he has done as much as anyone to ensure the success of the artistic-leadership model implemented by the SPCO in 2004. His shoes will be hard to fill.
Boyd takes his leave with a characteristically generous program of music written by Britons or, in the case of Haydn's Symphony No. 96, for them. It opened with Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" (1937), in a performance as variegated and incisive as any I've heard. The piece announced Britten's arrival on the international scene; the SPCO's program notes notwithstanding, it's a portrait of Europe on the brink of war, complete with goose-stepping march. Boyd and colleagues missed neither its barbs nor its bleakness.
Boyd, Glasgow-born, now lives in London; composer Sally Beamish, a native Londoner, moved to Scotland in 1989. (Both married cellists.) Her work, often descriptive, makes piquant use of Scottish folk materials. In her affecting "Under the Wing of the Rock," for solo viola and strings, she finds her starting point in a tale of a Gaelic lullaby that engendered an act of clemency. Herself a violist, Beamish writes intimately for the instrument; SPCO principal Sabina Thatcher, interrupting a sabbatical, played with vocal expressiveness and plangent tone. The composer was in the audience Thursday at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, and shared in the warm applause.
In scholar Wilfrid Mellers' persuasive reading, bird music (the solo violin) and human music (the orchestra) "gradually coalesce" in Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending." I'm not sure Boyd and violinist Ruggero Allifranchini hear it quite this way, but their account was magical in any case, with Allifranchini a ravishing avian presence.
Overflowing with felicities, Haydn's so-called Miracle Symphony felt, on this occasion, truly miraculous. Above all else, this music is deeply, redemptively sane -- a precious antidote to the excesses of our current national shouting match. Some enlightened philanthropist should hire a fleet of sound trucks to drive through our streets playing -- but not blaring -- Haydn.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.