A superb program, a band eager to display its mettle after a fractured 2012-13 season, a conductor of wide sympathies and vast experience — the auguries of Friday morning's concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, led by artistic partner Edo de Waart, could hardly have looked more favorable.
Yet for me the performance was complicated, at least initially, by the 10 locked-out Minnesota Orchestra players engaged for these concerts — a constant visual reminder of the Twin Cities' unending orchestral crisis.
The shorthanded SPCO is surely right to avail itself of this splendid local talent pool, but, in doing so, it inevitably provokes rumination on the sad state of the art, drawing attention away from the music itself.
In the end, however, the music-making of this hybrid orchestra held this listener's attention. The program, long on lyricism, opened with Antonín Dvorák's Serenade for Strings — 28 minutes of sheer bliss. The piece is as fetching as any I know, in any medium; memorable melodies, most of them folk- or dance-derived, sprout at nearly every turn.
Friday morning's wholehearted account, mingling warmth and transparency, was enlivened by the rhythmic spice that Czech-trained performers bring to this music. The marvelous Larghetto, soulfully sung by the strings, swept away all distractions, cellophane candy wrappers included.
Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906) is one of the pinnacles of his early, not-yet-atonal style. Scored for 15 solo instruments (10 winds, five strings), the work is a supercharged symphony in miniature — now eerie, now erotic, evoking a disquiet peculiar to early 20th-century Vienna.
De Waart and colleagues captured all the hectic energy, polyphonic density and intermittent spookiness of this mercurial music. Balances were deft: Rarely were the strings swamped by the numerically superior winds.
Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony (No. 6), which concluded the program, is his most endearing composition for orchestra, enshrining a pre-modern tranquillity that is nearly unrecoverable. Its fourth-movement thunderstorm apart, the symphony asks for a leisurely gait and beauty of tone. These the performers supplied, especially in the sublime "Scene by the Brook."
De Waart's leadership was both expansive and detailed. And if at moments I wished for a slightly lusher string sound, the vitality and finesse of the playing left no room for complaint.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.