"If you're down, listen to Beethoven."

Such was the sage advice of Hungarian conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy at Friday's midday St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert. He'd just finished telling the almost-capacity crowd at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall of someone he knew with severe depression who said that they found their way out of it thanks to Beethoven and his ability to take us to places of great grief, then illuminate a path beyond it.

Then Takacs-Nagy and the orchestra proceeded to demonstrate what Beethoven can do with one of the most powerful interpretations of the composer's "Eroica" Symphony I've ever encountered. The infectiously enthusiastic conductor was a joy to watch as he helped summon up a crisp and exciting opening movement, following it with a funeral march that plunged to the depths of a dark night of the soul, brimming with palpable pain before taking a turn toward exuberant light on the Scherzo and Finale.

It's the second straight season that the SPCO has concluded with Takacs-Nagy conducting Beethoven — 2023′s "Pastoral" Symphony was brilliantly rendered — and Friday's concert demonstrated that they indeed share a special chemistry. Here is a conductor who is clearly passionately in love with the music they're performing, and the atmosphere in the hall was one of intense dedication to expressing the emotional core of the music.

Such was also the case with the concert-opening performance of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, with SPCO Concertmaster Steven Copes as soloist. Like the second movement of the "Eroica," this concerto from 1935 is a reflection upon death, in this case a requiem for a young friend that ended up being the composer's final piece.

While built upon the 12-tone system of composition that Berg pioneered with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, it might be the most tumultuously emotional work to emerge from that school. Copes proved an eloquent guide to all of its extremes, emphasizing delicacy and grace in the opening movement and delivering the difficult opening minutes of the second movement with confidence and clarity. And it's hard to imagine how the finale's eventual ascent heavenward could have been executed more beautifully.

The soloist then assumed his role as leader of the orchestra's musicians by bidding farewell to two musicians who will be leaving after this weekend. Violinist Daria Adams is retiring after 37 years with the orchestra, taking her playing and programming skills to California's Napa Valley as co-artistic director of the Music in the Vineyards chamber music festival. Also departing is principal French horn James Ferree, who will take the same position with the Baltimore Symphony.

SPCO audiences will miss the skills of each, not only as players, but Adams for her curation and hosting of concerts and Ferree for such arrangements as an orchestration of J.S. Bach's keyboard work, the "Goldberg" Variations. In tribute to the pair, Copes, violist Maiya Papach and cellist Julie Albers performed a movement from Dmitry Sitkovetsky's string trio version of that piece.

But the finest sendoff for Ferree was the "Eroica," on which he led not only the boisterous horn trio on the Scherzo, but the most triumphal tones of the finale, the blazing light dispelling the darkness before it.

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at wordhub@yahoo.com.

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

With: Conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy and violinist Steven Copes

What: Works by Alban Berg and Beethoven

When: 7 p.m. Sat. & 2 p.m. Sun.

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

Tickets: $12-$55 (students and children free). 651-291-1144 or thespco.org.