Some composers conduct (Benjamin Britten and John Adams come to mind) and some conductors compose (Wilhelm Furtwängler, Esa-Pekka Salonen). Then there are a few composer-conductors, their hyphens heavy with meaning, for whom the dual pursuits seem happily co-dependent, each hardly imaginable without the other. Mahler is an obvious example; Matthias Pintscher, who makes an engrossing debut with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in both capacities this weekend, may well be another.
Pintscher, a boyish 40, seems a natural for the SPCO. For nearly two decades he's been hearing himself described as Germany's leading young composer, partly because he's managed to dance around the ideological storms that blow through the German new-music scene. He's been lauded, rightly, for the inventiveness of his "harmonies and orchestral voicings," for the "microscopic detail" of his textures, for his "virtuoso sense of sound." But these are means, not ends. Does the man with all this technical equipment also have something to say?
"Songs From Solomon's Garden," premiered last year by Thomas Hampson and the New York Philharmonic, suggests that he does. The piece feels like a series of conversations between singer and instrumentalists, propelled by the power and savor of Hebrew love poetry from the great "Song of Songs." Now diaphanous, now torrential, Pintscher's writing turns color into narrative, conjuring an invitingly sensuous soundscape. Evan Hughes' captivating bass-baritone, though occasionally engulfed by the orchestra, caresses the Hebrew syllables, which are not at all difficult to follow with the text provided.
Ravel's "Le tombeau de Couperin" -- six movements in its pianistic incarnation, four in its slightly later orchestral garb -- reflects multiple agendas. The suite is an homage to French music of the 18th century, epitomized by the figure of François Couperin. But it is also a memorial, each of its movements inscribed with the name of a friend killed in World War I. Conductor and orchestra captured both the refinement and the veiled pathos of this music; the ravishing close of the Prelude sounded like something Pintscher himself might have written.
No stranger in these parts, Beethoven's Eighth Symphony presents itself as a reversion to the world of Haydn but is in fact a scouting mission into the territory of the composer's late style. Thursday's turbocharged performance, despite a few rough edges, was terrific, overflowing with wicked wit and mock grandiosity.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.