The setting was a small concrete amphitheater. Vintage train cars loomed over one side of the stage, a locked-up, elevated pub on the other. Across the road, the expansive asphalt of the State Fair midway lay empty on this hot and somewhat sticky summer night.
And yet … it was a wonderful place to be Thursday. Because a Twin Cities audience was experiencing classical music live for the first time in nine months.
While there had been some thirst-quenching pop-up serenades from balconies and porches, this was different. The premier power couple of chamber music — pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel — were launching an al fresco mini-festival of five Schubert Club concerts, featuring music by the organization's namesake, Franz Schubert (and each long ago sold out).
Thursday evening proved a fine showcase for the composer's skill in crafting chamber works, while also giving a taste of what a brilliant songwriter he was. But the thrill of this concert was not only in the expert performances by the six musicians, but in the joy of 125 music lovers celebrating a mutual affection.
Granted, the Schilling Amphitheater on the State Fairgrounds' western edge is no Carnegie Hall, but it is an open-air venue in which a choir of sparrows lent voice to the hypnotic lullaby within Schubert's First Piano Trio. And a pair of ducks found the spirited performance of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet intriguing enough to drop onto a neighboring roof for a listen.
Wu Han and Finckel have been Schubert Club artists-in-residence this season, but they've mostly telecommuted until this week, presenting concerts from their New York home. While there will be a changing cast of characters over these five concerts, Thursday's opener was the best opportunity to hear the duo doing what it does best: collaborating on thoughtful, emotion-laden interpretations of great chamber music.
That's what they do as the heads of New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and a couple of prominent festivals. And, as they would there, the couple invited some exceptional guests to join them.
Such as Benjamin Beilman, increasingly in demand as a soloist on violin concertos with major orchestras. In his hands, the melody of the First Piano Trio's slow movement was heartbreaking, his tart exchanges with Wu Han on the "Trout" Quintet's opening movement were exhilarating, and the theme and variations on the "Trout" seemed akin to a joyous jam session.
Then there's tenor Paul Appleby, who used the acting skills he's honed on the opera stage to make four Schubert songs exquisitely entertaining, yet full of nuance and contrasting emotions. Saturday evening's concert will be given over to his performance of Schubert's song cycle "Winterreise," with Wu Han on piano. Judging from Thursday, it should be quite rewarding.
For the closing "Trout" Quintet, Beilman, Finckel and Wu Han were joined by two principal string players from the Minnesota Orchestra: violist Rebecca Albers and bassist Kristen Bruya. The highlight was the fourth movement, a delightful buffet of varied moods, intense full-ensemble explosions giving way to gentle exchanges and playful folk flavors.
Before COVID came along, Wu Han and Finckel were to present these concerts intermittently over the course of the season. Now they're packing all of their plans into one early summer week. Hats off to them for making good on the promise, and turning it into an intimate immersion in Schubert's artistry — and theirs.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
With: David Finckel, Wu Han and friends.
When: 7 p.m. Sat., Sun., Tue. and Thu.
Where: Schilling Amphitheater, Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Tickets: Sold out.