Christian Zacharias, artistic partner of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducts from the piano.


SPCO fare festive, a little flawed

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 19, 2011 - 7:44 AM

The past weekend's concerts in three "neighborhood" venues by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, featuring artistic partner Christian Zacharias at both piano and podium, eschewed seasonal fare -- no "Christmas Concerto" or the like. Yet Saturday's performance at St. Paul's United Church of Christ wore a festive air. Perhaps it had something to do with the illuminated trees behind the orchestra or with the sartorial choices of the enthusiastic throng.

Saturday's program, which departed from the printed sequence, bracketed music by Stravinsky and Carl Maria von Weber with two Haydn symphonies, one obscure, the other rightly popular. The earlier of these, No. 42 in D Major (1771), is a relatively placid product of Haydn's tempestuous "storm and stress" period; it boasts a comic-opera flavor in its inventive finale. But it does ramble a bit. Zacharias and the band made a strong case for it; the second movement, with violins muted, was especially affecting.

Zacharias and the SPCO played Stravinsky's balletic "Danses concertantes" in 2008; the orchestra programmed it again in 2010. It could use a rest. Stravinsky's brand of "music about music" -- his juxtaposition of sentiment and satire, Russian nostalgia and American abruptness -- is provocative at first but gets old fast. Even in a performance as dexterous as Saturday's, the work seemed less than the sum of its parts.

Both concerto and tone poem, Weber's 1821 Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra tells a chivalric story Weber wisely refrained from publishing. A damsel pines for her knight, who has gone off to fight in the Crusades. At length he returns to her; bliss ensues. The music broods agreeably in the work's opening pages, but with the knight's return it declines into kitsch.

To Weber's keyboard writing, which at its best foreshadows Chopin, the multi-tasking Zacharias brought a delicate touch. For him, lyricism seems paramount. Tempos are comfortable and flexible; he's neither a speed merchant nor a metronome. And though his gestures can be oddly angular, his phrases often shine with an unaffected beauty.

The difference between the Haydn of Symphony No. 42 and the Haydn of the 1794 "Military" Symphony (No. 100) is the difference between a glorified servant on a country estate and a celebrity who had conquered Europe's capitals. In Saturday's performance, the wonderful slow introduction to the later work -- "a very exquisite and silky creature," as Donald Tovey called it -- sounded a little prosaic. But thereafter, all was well; the boisterous finale, in particular, made an exhilarating noise.

Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.

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