It's been a rough May for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Last week, violinist and artistic director Kyu-Young Kim — one of the rare musician-leaders in the classical music business — let it be known that you should soon subtract the artistic director position from his title. He'll continue playing with the SPCO but won't be among the bosses.

Within days, the other main boss, managing director and president Jon Limbacher, received a "no confidence" vote from the orchestra's musicians. Evidently, he put forth a proposal late last year to cut the SPCO's season almost in half. That didn't sit well with the rank and file as they prepared to negotiate a new contract, and their bitterness grew when Kim quit.

So you might expect the musicians to be a bit distracted this weekend as they welcomed their English artistic partner, conductor Richard Egarr, for a set of concerts. Yet that didn't seem at all the case Friday night at the Ordway Concert Hall. Egarr was his usual ebullient self, spinning stories about the music that brought smiles and laughter onstage and in the seats. And the orchestra performed with an admirable balance of gravitas and joy.

Both emerged in the curtain raiser, Mozart's Overture to "The Magic Flute." It was an interpretation both benedictory and playful with Egarr emphasizing a sense of fun to match that of the opera — or songspiel, if you prefer — in its most comedic moments.

Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question" might seem a strange bedfellow, nestled between the classical era of Mozart and the transition period between classical and romantic that spawned Franz Schubert's final symphony. Yet this early 20th-century Ives felt suitably hypnotic, the SPCO strings casting an enigmatic spell while trumpeter John Dent serenaded the audience from a hidden location with the composer's mysterious musical query.

But this "express concert" — three pieces, less than 90 minutes, no intermission — was primarily focused upon one magnum opus, Schubert's Ninth Symphony, nicknamed "the Great." I concur with that moniker, as the composer created a grand excursion full of majesty, beauty and the orchestral equivalents of singing and dancing.

Under Egarr's direction, the SPCO exhibited excellent dynamic contrast, frequently bounding between fortissimos and pianissimos with grace and aplomb. Especially impressive was the scherzo movement, which bore the bouncing spirit of a child on a trampoline but was at its loveliest when swaying like a boat adrift.

While I would have preferred more crispness and punch in the symphony's fastest passages, it was nevertheless tremendously rewarding to hear a great chamber orchestra — its numbers swelled to 40 — bring us this feast of emotive orchestral writing. Splendid solos, duets and trios rang out throughout the more than 45-minute symphony, showcasing the skills and sensitivity of oboist Cassie Pilgrim, clarinetist Sang Yoon Kim and trios of French horns and trombones that evoked both transcendence and groundedness.

And Egarr complements the music marvelously with his between-tunes banter, describing the music with a colorful combination of wit and insight that could bring even the roughest week to a sweet, smiling denouement.

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

With: Conductor Richard Egarr

What: Works by Mozart, Charles Ives and Franz Schubert

Where and when: 2 p.m. Sunday, Benson Great Hall, 3900 Bethel Drive, Arden Hills

Tickets: $11-$55 (students and children free), available at 651-291-1144 or

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. He can be reached at