Pekka Kuusisto is not your average classical violinist. That much was evident from his appearance on Friday evening with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in "Time Machine," a program he curated examining the influence of the musical past in shaping new works for the future.
Garbed in a hooded gown-cum-cardigan, with a black T-shirt underneath, Kuusisto bounded onstage, grinning boyishly at the audience before slipping into the first violinist's chair, from where he led most of the concert.
A Haydn symphony, "The Clock," opened it. The SPCO, working conductorless, is a wonderful Haydn orchestra, and this was another scintillating performance, packed with wit and crackling with barely containable energies.
The Vivace finale fizzed with the verve and spontaneity of a fiddle session at a folk festival, which is not surprising — Kuusisto is a keen student of Finnish traditional music and plays it regularly.
If the Haydn was exuberant, the symphony that concluded the evening, Prokofiev's "Classical" — deliberately modeled on Haydn — was positively incendiary in its impact. Kuusisto was again the catalyst, driving the outer movements at a blistering tempo that required a crack response from the SPCO players, and got it.
The hyperactive wind figurations in the finale were brilliantly delivered, while the strings showed lightning reactions in the sharp dynamic contrasts demanded by the music. As an object lesson in how to play fast and furious without sounding scrambled and superficial, this "Classical Symphony" was more or less unsurpassable.
The three other pieces on the program were lower-voltage and often looked inward. Or, in the case of Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances," backward — Suite Three, based on lute music from the Italian Renaissance, breathes the kind of gentle melancholy that comes from mulling on the beauties of a bygone era from the harsher perspective of the present.
That nostalgia and sense of longing was sensitively captured in the sensually shaped playing of the SPCO string section, as it was in another piece that referenced past glories, Benjamin Britten's arrangement for string orchestra of Purcell's Chacony in G minor.
Kuusisto stepped out just once as soloist, and relatively briefly. The piece was the rarely heard Concerto in C by the great 20th-century violinist Fritz Kreisler, a work Kreisler originally claimed was by Vivaldi before admitting later that it wasn't.
Though not terribly Vivaldi-like, the Concerto in C is a charming work, full of geniality and easy-flowing melody. Kuusisto's was a warmly affectionate performance, built on his silken tonal quality, and a fabulously flexible bowing technique that makes transitions between phrases sound seamless.
The work's finale again had his folksy side surfacing, his cheeky, spur-of-the-moment inflections adding a jaunty, unpredictable quality to the interpretation. It brought a knowing smile or two from the SPCO players when it was over, and a gleeful thumbs-up from Kuusisto himself to a delighted audience.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.