Before this weekend, the most recent Twin Cities performance by the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto was an unusual Schubert Club recital in March of last year.
Kuusisto was paired with a juggler, Jim Gilligan. Gilligan threw bright-colored balls into the air while Kuusisto improvised music, some of it sweet, some of it jaunty, in reaction to the movement of the balls. The performance seemed to bedazzle the audience at Aria, a Minneapolis nightclub.
Kuusisto, who is 39 but looks 26, has been exploring a wide variety of musical styles for some time. While earning respect in the classical repertoire, he has toured with an electronica band, played jazz and folk music and made his mark in a rarefied genre known as "Norwegian noise."
Kuusisto's concert Saturday night with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Ordway Concert Hall was his first appearance here since he was named one of the orchestra's Artistic Partners. His performance on this occasion was perhaps more ambitious than the one with the juggler but a lot less dazzling.
For the concert's second half, he programmed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 and Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G. Instead of playing them straight through, he folded them into each other — Haydn's first movement followed by the first movement of the Mozart, then the next two of Haydn, and so on.
The result was an odd, overlong suite with two finales that neither composer could have envisioned and that diminished both works. Christopher Hogwood did a variation on this idea a couple of times during his years with the SPCO, putting the first two movements of a Mozart symphony at the start of the concert and the last two at the end, a practice for which there is historical precedent. The symphony in that case retained its basic shape.
Acting as conductor and soloist Saturday, Kuusisto led performances that were vigorous and fast-paced. As a player, however, Kuusisto's Mozart style was unconvincing. His tone was thin and wiry and he played with exaggerated dynamics, often so soft that the solo line was drowned out by the orchestra. (Had any of this been rehearsed?) The second-movement cadenza offered the kind of dissonances one hears in bagpipes — a jarring sound in Mozart.
The first half, another suite — and a more successful one — incorporated a work in Renaissance style called "Tenebre" for String Ensemble and Pre-Recorded Track by Bryce Dessner, of the rock band The National. Similar pieces by Nico Muhly, Sir Michael Tippett and the Estonian composer Errki-Sven Tüür were drawn into the mix. Played with great fervor, it was strange and evocative.
As for the unfortunate second half of the program, the pertinent question seemed to be: Where is that juggler when you need him?
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.