The Chamber Orchestra of Europe was a lively addition to the SPCO at the opening of the festival.
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, first of the four visiting ensembles to brave the Minnesota cold as participants in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's International Chamber Orchestra Festival, commingled with its host on Friday evening in a concert of 20th-century music for double string orchestra.
Douglas Boyd, a veteran of the COE as well as an artistic partner of the SPCO, conducted with a palpable sense of occasion. And if the two groups' combined forces -- 28 violins, by my count -- neither looked nor sounded chamber-like, only pedants would complain.
Founded in 1981 by alumni of what was then the European Community Youth Orchestra, the COE is a jet-age ensemble with a utopian air. Hailing from 15 countries, the players have remained part-time to forestall staleness. All are paid the same. The group, though it works with many of the world's foremost conductors, has never had a music director.
Most intriguingly, the COE is essentially itinerant: it has offices in London but no real home, no anchor in a particular locality. Members converge for gigs, then scatter. Geography, basic to the self-definition of most orchestras, is almost incidental for this one.
Is this a loss? Perhaps. But in a time of globalization, when traditional props of identity are splintering, it may also prove a boon.
Such musings, happily, did not intrude on Friday's riveting performances. Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" (1910) may have lacked the reverberant cathedral acoustic for which the composer wrote. But Boyd and colleagues, alive to the currents of mystery and ecstasy in this music, brilliantly interwove the intimacy of smaller string combinations with the rich sonorities of the full ensemble.
The second movement of Béla Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" (1936) can sound more sardonic than it did Friday; the third, more tragic. But the finale, propelled by string playing of hair-raising intensity, was stunning, with dance rhythms as Hungarian-sounding as one could wish.
In such exalted company, Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1939), which the composer associated with the "special English tradition" of Vaughan Williams' fantasia, seemed a little less than overwhelming. Friday's account was noteworthy for COE concertmaster Lorenza Borrani's gorgeous solo work in the contemplative Adagio, and for Boyd's exuberant handling, in the concluding Allegro, of folk elements from his native Scotland.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.