Fresh from a mostly conductorless gig in cavernous Carnegie Hall, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra returned Thursday to one of its comparatively compact neighborhood venues (Apple Valley's Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church) and to the crimped autonomy that comes with even the most sensitive baton.
Happily, the baton on this occasion belonged to the remarkable young Portuguese Joana Carneiro, who led the SPCO as recently as February, and whose engagements here can hardly be too frequent.
The program balanced old and newish, tactfully bracketing the local premiere of John Adams' 2007 "Son of Chamber Symphony" with 19th-century music. Dvorak's Nocturne for string orchestra, a movement salvaged by its parsimonious composer from an early string quartet (where he marked it "Andante religioso"), was the unusually deliberate opener. For what it lacked in lushness, Thursday's performance compensated with long-breathed, exquisitely tuned phrases and moments reminiscent of Dvorak's glowing Serenade for strings.
Written for 16 players, "Son of Chamber Symphony" -- the cheeky title is vintage Adams -- has the buoyancy, the sporadic wackiness, the diabolical virtuosity of its popular progenitor, the cartoonish Chamber Symphony of 1992: the acorn hasn't fallen far from the tree. But the piece also has the pathos and poignancy I'd missed in its parent.
Its range of reference is, if anything, wider. The first movement belabors a motive filched from no less an icon than Beethoven's Ninth; the last, featuring what the composer calls "a delicately pulsing trash can lid," revisits "News," the aria sung by Richard Nixon in the first act of Adams' own "Nixon in China" (a piece that's been stuck in my head for years, and that seems still to have the composer in its grip). As unpredictable as the father, the ambitious son may well prove the more enduring of the two.
Carneiro and the band, counting madly, had the measure of the work, though it sounds a little jazzier, and the balances more equitable, in a new Nonesuch recording, with Adams conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble (which includes SPCO violist Maiya Papach).
In Beethoven's great G-Major Piano Concerto -- positioned, atypically, at the program's close -- Shai Wosner was the sometimes delicate, sometimes fiery soloist. The drama of Beethoven's extraordinary Andante, in which a pleading piano slowly melts an obdurate orchestra, was superbly enacted. Perhaps this humane, edifying music should be played for our state's political leaders.