Friday night’s beautifully crafted St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program, heard at Wayzata Community Church in Wayzata, was a nice opportunity to hear artistic partner Thomas Zehetmair both conduct and play violin, along with the viola of his wife, Ruth Killius.
The highlight was their rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major (essentially a concerto for two solo instruments), a masterpiece among masterpieces.
In the orchestral opening, a cascade of ravishing melodies, Zehetmair and Killius played as members of the ensemble, their backs to the audience, until they turned around and dazzled.
Mozart gave the soloists equal weight and Zehetmair and Killius played as one, trading off the melodies and then playing in perfect accord.
The intensity of their relationship was reflected in the intensity of their playing: It was endearing the way they enjoyed each other. They produced an alternately warm and brilliant sound, each seeming to inspire the other through lush legato and pyrotechnic virtuosity. The cadenzas were a special treat.
The orchestra was equally spellbinding, playing with flair and a textbook lesson in Mozart style.
Before this, Zehetmair and Killius played a duet without the orchestra, “Three Sketches” for Violin and Viola by Heinz Holliger, designed as a companion piece when they play the Mozart. The intense miniatures range from a breathtaking perpetual motion, a seemingly endless cascade of notes, to a Cantique, where each instrument played two voices, with the performers humming to complete the six-part harmonies.
The curtain-raiser was the brief “Pastorale d’été (Summer Pastorale)” by the French/Swiss composer Arthur Honegger.
Written in 1920, the idyll is a lightweight work, with echoes of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The orchestra played with charm, but there was still a heaviness to the reading.
The echoes of Beethoven continued in Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 2 in A minor. A youthful work (he was 24 when it was first performed in 1860), it lacks the gravitas of his models and especially of his masterpiece symphony, his Third (“Organ”).
The orchestra played with passionate commitment, making a complete meal of the dramatic first movement and especially of the sprightly finale, reminiscent of the finale of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony.
Zehetmair conducted with obvious affection for this music and he weaved the symphony into a delicious confection.
William Randall Beard writes about music and theater.