German pianist and conductor Christian Zacharias, who leads and solos in this week's concerts by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Ordway Center, is widely identified with the music of Viennese classicism: Mozart is his bread and butter. So it was a bit surprising to discover on Thursday evening that Zacharias, an SPCO artistic partner since 2009, was marginally more convincing in works of Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives than he was in repertory standards by Mozart and Schubert.
Stravinsky's 1938 Concerto in E-flat, dubbed "Dumbarton Oaks" after the imposing house in Washington (D.C.) where it had its premiere, is a baroque concerto grosso on steroids, with a few deadpan reminiscences of Tchaikovsky thrown in for good measure. I've heard performances of this music more energetic than Thursday's, but none more arch or articulate, none more sensitive to its pronounced mood swings.
Ives' "Three Places in New England" (1903-14) is arguably the greatest orchestral piece of America's greatest composer, and it is heartening to see a deeply Eurocentric musician like Zacharias take it seriously. His account Thursday was terrific. "Putnam's Camp," a wild collage of patriotic ditties, children's songs and other shards of Americana, built to a glorious cacophony; "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" made a visionary moment palpable.
Mozart's A-major Piano Concerto, K.488, is a gem, but in Zacharias' hands it sparkled somewhat fitfully. If the Rondo was deliciously whimsical, the all-important slow movement — melancholic and opera-like — felt a bit prosaic. I wanted greater inwardness and intensity, however veiled.
Schubert's Mozartian Fifth Symphony is lyricism distilled — an oasis of warmth in a world turned coldly cynical. Thursday's account offered many felicities. But here again, especially in the Andante, I felt the performers were capable of greater presence and refinement than they delivered.
Zacharias' conducting, though often delicate, can look pugilistic: In the final bars of "Dumbarton Oaks" he seemed ready to deliver a blow to the blameless first violins. But his rapport with the musicians is evident.
Substitutes were conspicuous in the SPCO Thursday, as they will be for years to come — a consequence of the unprecedented wave of retirements last summer. This vacancy rate is discomfiting. But with subs at the level of this week's guest principal cello, Joseph Johnson (formerly of the Minnesota Orchestra, now principal of the Toronto Symphony), the ride should be engrossing.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.