The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra promised the premiere of a violin concerto Thursday night at the Ordway Concert Hall. It ended up, almost, giving the premiere of two violin concertos — one new, the other old.
The qualification seems necessary because the old piece, though different from what we're used to, could still be recognized as Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D.
One of the livelier controversies in recent musicology was prompted by the appearance in 2005 of a new performing edition of a 200-year-old violin concerto composed by Beethoven's friend Franz Clement, who played the premiere of Beethoven's own concerto in 1806. The surprising similarity between the two works provoked questions: Did Beethoven copy Clement's concerto? Did Clement assist Beethoven in preparing the published version of the latter's concerto?
For her own version of the Beethoven, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, one of the SPCO's artistic partners, drew on elements of Clement's work and went further. She interpolated cadenzas from other period sources, and stretched tempos and phrases a good deal, aiming at an improvisatory air. She altered dynamics in key places, putting the solo violin in the background.
The result was interesting, the cadenzas especially. In the first movement, Kopatchinskaja was joined by four cellos and timpani in what felt like a jazz jam session. In her program note, she called the work "a symphony for orchestra and improvising violin." Had Beethoven, who was pretty serious about his notes, heard that, he would probably have had one of his famous tantrums. And a touch of this concerto's inward, patrician character gets lost when the key question in a performance is, "What's she gonna do next?"
Even so, Kopatchinskaja remains a compelling performer. The intensity of her playing, along with her near-flawless technique and fetching personality have earned enthusiastic audiences. Surely orchestra concerts are too solemn and maybe Kopatchinskaja is an antidote to that.
With Tito Munoz conducting, Kopatchinskaja was the soloist in the new work, too, the Concerto for Violin and Chamber Ensemble by Michael Hersch, who teaches at the Peabody Institute. After the performance, there was much hugging and kissing among musicians and Hersch, who was present, which suggested this work is more rewarding to play than to hear.
Hersch says in a program note that his concerto is a response to grief over the death of a friend. Listening to 32 minutes of shrieking "anger and sadness" from the woodwinds and brass — jarring, directionless sounds — the audience comes to share Hersch's grief, to a certain extent, and, as a therapeutic gesture, wants never to hear this music again.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.