How do you make a Boccherini string quintet interesting?
The Italian composer wrote more than 100 of them, and though they're invariably charming, the sight of one on a concert program doesn't necessarily set the pulse racing.
On Friday evening at the Ordway, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra had fun with a quintet from Boccherini's Op. 30 set, entitled "Night Music on the Streets of Madrid."
In fact they had fun before that too, slipping in an unscheduled sonata for two cellos by French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière to start the concert.
Joshua Koestenbaum and Zachary Cohen (playing the second cello part on his double bass) just about managed to keep a straight face during their mischievous performance.
For the Boccherini itself, the lights were dimmed, setting a suitably nocturnal atmosphere.
Twelve onstage players were flanked by two on each side of the balcony, sparking antiphonal exchanges which spatially represented the echo effects in Boccherini's music, and symbolized the far-flung sounds of nighttime activity in the city.
Church bells and snare drum rolls were imitated in the string writing, and in one episode the three cellists tipped their instruments sideways on their lap, strumming them like a giant guitar.
It was all delightfully entertaining, a kind of semi-staging of the musical imagination you find in Boccherini's music when he is at his most inventive.
Musical imitation also played a key part in "Sound of the Five," a piece by former SPCO composer-in-residence Chen Yi which followed.
The work featured recently appointed SPCO cellist Richard Belcher in the solo part, with a string quartet led by principal violin Kyu-Young Kim in a semicircle around him.
Chen Yi herself provided a spoken introduction, explaining that she aimed to imitate traditional Chinese instruments — a bamboo mouth organ, set bells and seven-string zither among them — using the same quintet lineup as Boccherini.
Tingling harmonics, ethereal glissandi and sharp pizzicati uncannily evoked bells in the piece's second movement, while its finale "Flower Drums in Dance" became a whirl of giddy kinetic energy in the SPCO quintet's excellent performance.
The cello remained front and center for the final item of the evening, Haydn's genial Cello Concerto in C, with SPCO principal Julie Albers as soloist.
Albers regularly leads the cello section in the orchestra's peerless performances of Haydn's symphonies, so it was no surprise to hear her integrating with seamless fluidity to the SPCO's way of playing the composer.
Albers' finely tapered entries emerged as if from the orchestra itself, and her lissome, songful account of the opening movement had an elegance which made for intensely pleasurable listening.
The adagio was beguilingly shaped and shaded, with hints of gentle melancholy occasionally surfacing. In the hyper-energetic finale, Albers' precise, supple fingerwork ensured as many notes as possible were heard amid the flurry of instrumental activity.
Concertmaster Steven Copes led the orchestra's buoyant accompaniment, which crisply rounded out an irresistibly fresh performance of a much-played masterpiece.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.