This week's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts inaugurate a three-week series in which Artistic Partner Thomas Zehetmair juxtaposes works of Franz Joseph Haydn with 20th-century compositions. Throughout this week's diverse program Zehetmair demonstrated what an asset he is as an artistic partner.
The highlight of the program was an exhilarating performance of Haydn's String Quartet in C, "Emperor." The work fell out of favor during World War II because the second movement is a theme and variations on the German national anthem. An older woman sitting next to me seemed uncomfortable with it even now.
But it offered each of the musicians the opportunity to display real virtuosity. Zehetmair, as first violin, was ably partnered by violinist Ruggero Allifranchini, violist Maiya Papach and cellist Robert DeMaine.
They played with robust passion, but also gentle delicacy, sensitive to every nuance of the music and their collaboration. This was a performance that enlivened the spirit.
The 20th-century works, Elliott Carter's Concerto for Oboe and Frank Martin's Three Dances for Oboe, Harp, String Quintet and String Orchestra, came with an added degree of historical authenticity. They were performed by the soloists for whom they were written: the legendary oboist Heinz Holliger, and his wife, harpist Ursula Holliger.
Swiss composer Frank Martin was 80 when he wrote his Three Dances in 1970. Using Latin rhythms, from flamenco to rumba, he created a youthful and vigorous work, made all the more compelling by the lively interplay of the soloists. Zehetmair made this pleasantly accessible piece of modern music sparkle.
American Elliott Carter was also 80 when he wrote his dramatic Oboe Concerto. The work, dating from 1988, is atonal and rhythmically complex. Zehetmair successfully explicates the work's complicated structure, nicely clarifying the performances of all the subgroups of instruments.
An oboist himself, Carter fully understood the capabilities of the instrument and exploited them. Holliger, 72, played with amazing commitment and skill. His oboe was hypnotic and mesmerizing, carrying the audience lyrically through some bracingly challenging music.
The concert concluded with Haydn's Symphony No. 99 in E-flat, seventh of the 12 symphonies Haydn wrote, late in life, for performance in London. Collectively, they are the most perfectly crystalline examples of the Classical symphony. Zehetmair captured both the formality and novelty of Haydn's creation.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.