What on Earth was he thinking? That was the reaction of audiences when Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” (“Grand Fugue”) for string quartet was first heard in 1826. “An indecipherable, uncorrected horror,” one fellow composer said.

On Friday evening at St. Paul’s Ordway Center, a quartet of players from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra made sweet music of a piece once judged almost unlistenable.

It was a performance full of grace and dignity, led with a fiery elegance by violinist Kyu-Young Kim. The slow, lyrical interludes had a lingering beauty, while the truculent fugal jousting was less aggressively projected than in many performances, much to the music’s ultimate benefit.

This was Beethoven reinvented: the lion harboring a tender cub inside.

The performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto had similar qualities of joy and elation. The soloist was Steven Copes, who this year celebrates his 20th anniversary as the SPCO’s concertmaster.

Thirty-three musicians accompanied Copes, about half the number typically used in Beethoven’s concerto by a full-sized symphony orchestra. The differences in outcome were stark, and positive.

Rhythms were springier, and a sense of fresh air breathed throughout the orchestra.

In this congenial environment, Copes emerged organically as a soloist of refined sensibility and emotional intelligence. Light of touch and chirruping, his solo lines frequently floated birdlike over the orchestral textures, liberated from the cut and thrust of terrestrial activity.

The Larghetto middle movement was particularly affecting. Phrased with disarming simplicity, it had an ethereality more sensual than philosophical, both in the delicate orchestral accompaniment and in Copes’ gossamer-light, pellucid playing.

The Rondo finale was breezy and full of positivity. This was Beethoven recalibrated — not the glowering Titan that we see in paintings, but a composer capable of fun and frolic, even frivolity. These qualities, along with a life-affirming vitality, brimmed through Copes’ interpretation.

Before the Beethoven pieces came the Midwest premiere of New York composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Records from a Vanishing City,” a 13-minute work dedicated to the memory of a friend from whom Montgomery inherited a large record collection. The ruminative piece mixed wafts of nostalgia with sharper, contemporary striations.

Passages of Copland-like folksiness cross-faded to jazzier inflections, the bass clarinetist offering a passable imitation of sultry saxophone colorations. Guest bassoonist Marc Goldberg also made a palpable impression in his debonair, creamy-toned solos.

All three pieces in the concert were performed without a conductor. You never for a moment missed one. The SPCO players revel in the individual responsibility they get to make their own expressive decisions.

The results at Friday evening’s concert were collegial and deeply satisfying.


Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic. He can be reached at artsblain@gmail.com.