The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra can boast of two opening nights this season. The first, which took place before a capacity crowd at the Ordway Center on Saturday night, was the official start of the orchestra’s 56th season: Roberto Abbado conducting a pair of symphonies by Beethoven and the premiere of an engaging new work by the Italian composer Nicola Campogrande.
The second, happening in February, will be the unveiling of the orchestra’s new home, a $41 million, 1,100-seat concert hall attached to the present Ordway, for which, according to orchestra President Bruce Coppock, an additional $40 million has already been raised to serve as an endowment fund.
Nothing energizes a performing arts organization — or its audience — like the promise of a new hall. This, coupled with what appears to be a successful recovery from the stress of a prolonged contract dispute and lockout during parts of 2012 and 2013, surely accounted for the mood of celebration that infused Saturday’s concert.
Coppock announced from the stage the hiring of a new principal cello, Julie Albers, as well as the appointment of seven guest musicians, some of whom may be offered a permanent position.
And it can’t have hurt that Abbado, one of the orchestra’s five Artistic Partners, an experienced and thoughtful conductor, has always gotten on well with the musicians. They played with precision and special energy Saturday night, toeing the mark even when Abbado’s tempos seemed rushed, most notably in the outer movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, a breathless roller coaster ride that missed some of the music’s Haydn-like humor.
Presiding over the weightier Symphony No. 7 in the evening’s second half, Abbado seemed less pressed. The poetically phrased introduction, the shrewdly paced second movement with its aura of sad dignity, the scintillating Scherzo movement, the robust finale — this was familiar music brought impressively to life. Even so, not everyone is convinced that a chamber orchestra of 35 or so players is the proper vehicle for the Beethoven symphonies, especially the bigger ones, all of which will be performed in this series this season.
The issue isn’t what the original forces were at the premieres of these works some 200 years ago but what size orchestra Beethoven would have preferred if he could he have gotten a bigger ensemble. Abbado made a good case for the defense, though the jury continues to deliberate.
Emanuele Arciuli was the fluent and adroit piano soloist in the Campogrande piece, “Urban Gardens” for Piano and Orchestra. In three scenes — “On a Concert Hall Rooftop,” “In a Jazz Club Courtyard” and “On a Studio Terrace” — the composer imagines, as he says in a note, “the piano as an urban memory and the orchestra as a green, vegetal presence that surrounds it.” Campogrande’s music sparkles with wit and energy but displays, too, a rich vein of melancholy in the bluesy tune that permeates the second movement. There are touches of Ravel in the writing for piano, but the sound and style is something new and original. The composer, a bearded, lanky 45-year-old, was present. He joined the musicians onstage at the end and received a rousing ovation.
Michael Anthony writes about music.