Having encountered some rather opulent halls during last week's tour to five northern European cities, the musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra may have found Apple Valley's Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, the setting for their concert Thursday evening, a bit plain. But one could scarcely complain of plainness (or fatigue) in their playing, which under the baton of the young James Gaffigan was strikingly zestful.
In a substantial program spanning four centuries, Thomas Adès' 2005 violin concerto "Concentric Paths" managed, not for the first time, to be the focus of attention. Played here last season by Anthony Marwood, for whom it was written, the piece found itself on Thursday in the agile hands of Leila Josefowicz, whose just-bestowed MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recognizes her championship of new music.
Adès in his 20s was an enfant terrible, clever and impudent. Adès in his 30s, though still given to deviltry, digs deeper. "Concentric Paths," rhapsodic yet often spare, dances with Shostakovich and the minimalists, among others, but avoids postmodern pastiche. (Other recent scores reveal a fruitful obsession with Brahms.) "Paths," the expansive slow movement at the concerto's center, has a desolate theatricality reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.
As played from memory by Josefowicz on Thursday, the work sounded as if it had met its predestined advocate. Her athletic style suits the music perfectly. She was utterly secure at the vertiginous altitudes of the opening movement, and found a beguiling swing in the last. (Alas, Ottorino Respighi replaces Adès for the remaining iterations of this program.)
If Adès' music is partly about adapting the resources of the past to the expressive needs of the present, Anton Webern's riveting transcription of the six-part Ricercar from Bach's "The Musical Offering" is about using the resources of the "present" -- in this case, the 1930s -- to re-create the music of the past.
In a dazzling act of alchemy, Webern melts down Bach's counterpoint (for which no instrumentation was specified) and recasts it as a melody of orchestral tone-colors. Never has orchestration been more telling, less decorative. Though balances occasionally seemed askew on Thursday, Gaffigan and the SPCO proved subtle colorists.
Framing Adès and Bach-Webern were two ballet episodes, stately and dramatic, from Mozart's opera "Idomeneo," and Schubert's Mozartian Symphony No. 5 -- a model of lissome lyricism.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.