Whither the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra?

With little more than two weeks until the musicians' agreement expires, the mood at Friday morning's Ordway Center concert was decidedly sober. Everyone I spoke to appeared to know what's at stake in thus-far-unproductive contract talks: long-term health of a lustrous, half-century-old cultural treasure that draws global attention to St. Paul.

Friday's program, masterfully led by artistic partner Edo de Waart, seemed designed to illuminate what we stand to lose. The opener, the Op. 7 Serenade by the teenage Richard Strauss, showcased the SPCO's remarkable wind section; this was followed by Strauss' late "Metamorphosen," which did the same for the strings. And the entire ensemble, joined by artistic partner Christian Zacharias, assembled for a dazzling reinvention of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto -- a work symphonic in ambition, and one that chamber orchestras almost never dare to poach.

Strauss' breezy Serenade (1882) has the open-air quality of its 18th-century antecedents. The composer grew up among wind players -- his father was the leading horn virtuoso of the day -- and wrote for them with tenderness and warmth. Coaxed by De Waart -- a former oboist who has recorded this piece -- the winds responded seductively, with timbres subtly blended.

"Metamorphosen" (1944-45) is more complicated. A lament for Munich's opera house, reduced to rubble by Allied bombs in 1943, it is music of somber beauty, haunted by a quotation from Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. Yet it raises moral questions: Musicologist Rose Subotnik asked "how it was that the bombing of an opera house, rather than the murder of fellow human beings, drew this expression of grief from Strauss."

De Waart and the SPCO strings, in a performance of prodigious lyric intensity, let the questions reverberate.

Contemporaneous with Strauss' Serenade, Brahms' vast, high-romantic concerto -- "tiny, tiny," he playfully called it -- is among the summits of the repertoire. The SPCO, numbering 36 on this occasion, brilliantly impersonated a much larger ensemble. And if the work's chamber-music-like pages fared best, there were moments of lean grandeur that were scarcely less impressive. Zacharias was in exceptional form, his tone limpid, his rhythmic freedom exemplary; he shone in the Chopin-invoking, quasi-improvisatory Andante.

Can such exalted music-making really be in danger of eclipse?

Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.