Steven Copes brings zest to violin concerto with SPCO

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 24, 2012 - 9:36 PM

REVIEW: For his concerto, Korngold borrowed from his own film scores, which he described as "operas without singing."

Steven Copes

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Ubiquitous in jazz and hip-hop, borrowing is scarcely less common in the music known as classical. For evidence, look no farther than this week's concerts by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, led by Rossen Milanov and featuring violinist Steven Copes, the orchestra's formidable (and newly married) concertmaster, as soloist. Borrowed or appropriated materials are central to all the pieces on the SPCO's attractive hodgepodge of a program -- a useful reminder that, long before the era of remixes and mashups, musicians had the habit of pinching each other's best bits.

In his Violin Concerto, most of it written in 1945, Erich Wolfgang Korngold -- his middle name paid homage to Mozart -- borrowed from a particularly congenial source: himself. Dedicated to Mahler's widow, the work (which has achieved something like repertory status) recycles a handful of memorable tunes from Korngold's expansive film scores -- "operas without singing," he called them -- to which, per contract, he owned the copyrights.

The concerto, as the composer put it, was written "more for a Caruso than a Paganini" -- despite its fearsome technical demands, its essence is lyrical, not virtuosic. Copes, his tone gorgeous, his zest palpable, did full justice to both dimensions. He executed Korngold's bewitching "Romance," the piece's heart, with marvelous poignancy; its dissolving close was a full-body goose-bump moment. And by the end he'd found the sense of ease and spaciousness I'd missed at first.

Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, is a string-orchestra transcription of his darkly autobiographical Eighth String Quartet by the late Rudolf Barshai, a violist and conductor who studied with Shostakovich. The work -- an SPCO fixture, played as recently as last May -- teems with self-reference and self-quotation. In Milanov's hands it seemed infinitely dolorous: the opening largo was grief-stricken, the allegretto spooky and menacing. Only the ominous, three-note "knock-at-the-door" motif felt a little too polite.

Prokofiev wrote his "Overture on Hebrew Themes" (1919) at the behest of a six-member klezmer band that supplied him with the tunes. "An insignificant piece," he called it. Yet he orchestrated it in 1934, and it's played to this day. In Friday morning's account, Timothy Paradise's clarinet sounded especially Jewish, sinuous and a mite impertinent.

In 1928 -- around the time of the deliciously surrealist opera "The Nose," lately revived by conductor Valery Gergiev -- the cheeky Shostakovich, not yet scarred by Stalin, dashed off wind-band arrangements of two keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Branded "scurrilous" by one writer, they're rarely heard. The SPCO's performance dripped attitude.

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.

  • ST. PAUL CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

    What: Music by Erich Korngold (Violin Concerto, with soloist Steven Copes), Prokofiev, Scarlatti-Shostakovich and Shostakovich-Barshai, conducted by Rossen Milanov. When: 8 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $10-$40, kids $5. 651-291-1144 or www.thespco.org.

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