Go for the Bach and Mozart, but stay and be surprised by the new stuff.
That would be a fairly typical concert program for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra throughout its 62-year history. It has long been the best band in the Twin Cities when it comes to baroque and classical-era repertoire, but it's also an adventurous ensemble that introduces local audiences to buzz-bearing contemporary composers.
Saturday night's livestreamed concert from St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall was a fine example. Bookended by a J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto and a Mozart Divertimento, its center consisted of two works by American composers: a new SPCO-commissioned piece by Viet Cuong and the string quartet version of Gabriela Lena Frank's 2001 composition, "Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout," which contended with the Bach for the concert's consummate adrenaline rush.
All four received interpretations full of intense energy and expert musicianship, and the video — streaming again at 7 p.m. Thursday at thespco.org — added to the excitement with lots of crosscutting between musicians well-timed to the exchanges in the music (especially on the Bach).
And about that Bach: The 11 players assembled for the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 were the biggest collection of SPCO musicians on one stage since the COVID crisis began. All six Brandenburgs are baroque-era instrumental writing at its finest, and the Third is the one built upon threes: three violins, three violas and three cellos. It proved a lively colloquy Saturday, each player given an opportunity to express themselves, the bass and harpsichord providing solid footing beneath.
Making its debut was Cuong's "Circling Back," a duet for oboe and cello that packed a lot of interesting interplay into a short amount of time. Oboist Cassie Pilgrim and cellist Sarah Lewis were impressively simpatico, whether uniting for pulsating percussive rhythms or engaging in lyrical reveries. There's an inviting folk flavor to the piece, often feeling more like casual conversation than a complex cerebral outpouring. It's an intriguing work that deserves a place on future chamber concerts.
While I loved the Bach, the evening's highlight was Frank's "Leyendas." Violinists Maureen Nelson and Daria Adams, violist Maiya Papach and cellist Richard Belcher acutely navigated the work's fluctuating moods and diverse harmonic and rhythmic demands.
With string-bending tonalities, vigorous strumming and dramatically intense interplay, the piece left me both longing to experience it in a live setting and conversely wondering if the intimacy of the excellent video work didn't have a lot to do with its appeal.
After all that excitement, Mozart's Divertimento No. 15 felt like something of an anticlimax. Oh, the playing was passionate and precise, but there was no getting around the idea that the composer created it as background music for a party — a diversion. While pleasant, it's not particularly deep.
The chief attraction is that its five string players are joined by two French horns for a welcome aural change of pace. But Mozart doesn't really let the horns do much. Instead, the spotlight was regularly seized by violinist Steven Copes, who whipped off one engaging solo after another, sometimes boisterous, other times lovely and lyrical.
But, at evening's end, I wondered if the Bach and Mozart shouldn't have traded places, for the rapid-fire finale of the third Brandenburg might have made for quite the potent nightcap.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
What: Music by J.S. Bach, Viet Cuong, Gabriela Lena Frank and Mozart.
When: Encore at 7 p.m. Thu.
Where: Free at thespco.org.