In mid-May, the nimble St. Paul Chamber Orchestra -- the unconducted edition, captained by concertmaster Steven Copes -- troops off to Carnegie Hall, where audiences will again marvel (a bit patronizingly?) at the superb music-making to be found in "flyover country." The band's New York program, part of a nine-day festival showcasing seven North American orchestras, features artistic partner Dawn Upshaw in music by Bartok and Maria Schneider.
Upshaw, however, isn't in Minnesota for this week's preview concerts, leaving local audiences to focus their attention on the Stravinsky and Haydn works that frame the orchestra's festival program, and on George Enescu's glowing Dixtuor for winds, which will go unheard in the Big Apple. (Listeners at Minneapolis' 660-seat Temple Israel may have had the best of all possible experiences Thursday, encountering the SPCO with a reach-out-and-touch-them immediacy not to be had in the 2,900-seat Carnegie, fabled acoustics notwithstanding.)
Conductorless chamber orchestras are hardly thick on the ground. But for nearly four decades, this niche has been cultivated assiduously by New York's Orpheus, which, unlike the SPCO, has never submitted to a maestro's baton. The group plays an annual subscription season in Carnegie; its current season ends next Friday with the very Haydn symphony (No. 104) that the SPCO will play just two weeks later in the same space. Critical comparisons are inevitable.
Stravinsky's late-neoclassic Concerto in D (1946) has been labeled "pure entertainment." But choreographer Jerome Robbins thought otherwise, using the score for a grim 1951 ballet ("The Cage") about an insect species whose females kill their mates after sex. The SPCO seemed to side with Robbins, stressing the nervousness and vehemence of the writing, distancing itself from the pseudo-romanticism of the Arioso.
Despite the efforts of the megalomaniac Ceausescu regime to eradicate his memory, the work of George Enescu, Romania's foremost musical son, has been enjoying a modest revival. His 1906 Dixtuor (French for decet, or dectet -- a piece for 10 musicians), though a little backward for its day, is a gorgeous thing, melding contrapuntal sophistication with Romanian folk elements. Thursday's performance throbbed with life; the middle movement's fadeaway ending was exquisite.
Though the remarkable slow introduction of Haydn's final symphony sounded a bit straitjacketed, there was no stopping the SPCO thereafter. The last two movements were taken at an invigorating clip; Michael Israelievitch's boisterous account of the timpani part was particularly exhilarating.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.