Season-opening concerts are usually elaborate festival-like events. But given the current financial hardships of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, it's understandable that this year's opener was much more circumspect. Under the baton of artistic partner Edo de Waart, the performance was modestly successful.
The highlight of the program was the Beethoven Symphony No. 3, "Eroica." De Waart has conducted it many times over his long career, but by his own admission, usually with almost twice the strings. He makes a strong case for using the reduced forces of the chamber orchestra, achieving the transparency and clarity of chamber music without neglecting the big orchestral climaxes.
He is a master at maintaining the building tension of the opening movement, focusing on the details while still propelling the movement forward. He missed the epic grieving of the second movement's funeral march, but captured the jubilant energy of the scherzo. His flashy reading of the finale brought the audience to its feet.
The first half was made up of two works by Stravinsky from his neoclassical period. The Octet for Winds, originally written in 1923 and revised in 1954, was his first foray into neoclassicism, a movement that saw a return to the formal structures of the Classical period, getting away from the emotional excesses of Romanticism.
It was preceded by the Concerto in D, written in 1946, when Stravinsky was part of the émigré community in Hollywood. (This is the same milieu that playwright Christopher Hampton explores in his play "Tales From Hollywood," which opens at the Guthrie Theater later this month.) The Concerto is a 20th-century take on an 18th-century concerto grosso, down to the Baroque design of the three movements that were fast-slow-fast, and the emphasis on counterpoint.
They are both melodic works, firmly rooted in tonality, if a bit dissonant. But they were written in Stravinsky's dry, acerbic style. The orchestra played with precision and clarity, but De Waart's interpretation maintained a hard edge with the music, preferring to be cold and analytical and eschewing any emotion and sentimentality. As a result, the pieces were both a little difficult to warm up to.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.