Back in 2008, Christian Zacharias included Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto in his second-ever appearance with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, playing the solo part and conducting from the keyboard. Shortly afterward, he became an artistic partner at the orchestra and has since curated 20 different programs, including more than two dozen composers, a sum total of 60-odd concerts.
Friday evening at the Ordway was “Auf Wiedersehen” — Zacharias’ final program as artistic partner, the Chopin F minor again helping him to take it home. It was, almost inevitably, a poignant performance, especially in the outer sections of the beautiful central larghetto, where the decorative runs were crystalline and the trilling limpid.
Zacharias is, though, an unsentimental Chopin player, disinclined to linger dreamily over this or that passing gesture. The opening maestoso at times moved almost restlessly forward, the intermittent note flurries emblematic of strong, precise emotions, not generic virtuosity. His hands hopping from the keyboard to shape a wind phrase here, or cue an entry there, Zacharias was a whirl of activity in the jocund finale, where much of the detail seemed improvised on the spur of the moment. The orchestra was unflappable, evidently relishing the joshing interplay with their departing sergeant.
The SPCO has been smoking Haydn symphonies this season, in a series of wonderfully zesty, imaginative performances. Earlier in the program Zacharias elicited another, of the 82nd Symphony. He’s a taut, crisply organized conductor, and if at times the allegretto lacked geniality, the bold dynamic contouring and rhythmic exactitude more than compensated. The performance as a whole, brilliantly linch-pinned by concertmaster Steven Copes, had boundless energy and optimism, with sizzling contributions from the double bassists in the grungy finale.
Zacharias also gave the SPCO premiere of a work by Chopin’s fellow Pole, Grażyna Bacewicz. Her Concerto for Strings, from 1948, is full of snap and sinew in the outer movements, though Zacharias carefully offset the bristling rhythms with deft balancing between the parts and transparency of textures. Bacewicz was a string player herself, and this showed clearly in the andante, where mutes, tremolandos and sul ponticello bowing conjured a shadowy “Nachtmusik,” recalling Bartók.
Too soon the evening was over: There wasn’t a dull bar of music in it. Routine is not a word in Christian Zacharias’ vocabulary, and that is why his artistic partnership at the SPCO has been so notably successful. When he returns in 2018 for a free-standing guest appearance, he will find a grateful, enthusiastic audience waiting.
Terry Blain is a Twin Cities classical music critic.