Standing on the stage of the new Ordway Concert Hall Friday night, Bruce Coppock, president of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, introduced the program, saying, "What you are about to experience will probably be unlike any other concert you've ever attended."
Indeed, what happened couldn't be called run-of-the-mill. Nor could it be called a success. Coppock went on to describe the proceedings as "a fantasy about death" and "a fantasy on 'Death and the Maiden,'" referring to Franz Schubert's revered String Quartet in D minor.
The work takes its name from a song that Schubert composed in 1817, a setting of a text by Matthias Claudius in which death is seen as both a terror and a comfort. Schubert wrote the quartet seven years later during a dark period when he was suffering from depression, poverty and bad health. Haunted by fear of death, which was to come just four years later when he was 31, Schubert used the song as the basis of the quartet's second movement.
But this was more than just a performance of the quartet in a version for string orchestra. Working in close collaboration with the musicians, the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, one of the orchestra's Artistic Partners, added brief excerpts from the work of other composers, making up a prelude and interludes between the movements. Some were from the Renaissance — among them Gesualdo and Dowland. Others were contemporary — Kurtág and Holliger.
There was a theatrical element, too. Ritual was hinted at as well as the fascination in the visual arts of the 15th century and later with images of Death carrying away a young woman. Kopatchinskaja appeared at the start in a skeleton costume dancing a jig and playing a kind of dance of death.
None of this added up to much. The interpolations into the quartet sounded vaguely mysterious, but in what sense did they comment on the subject of death? They simply made a long piece longer. Perhaps a series of sung texts would have brought some extra meaning.
As theater, this whole idea obviously has possibilities — images of death as they evolved over the centuries. But this would have needed actual staging and lighting effects. This all looked like it had been put together too quickly. Kopatchinskaja's skeleton outfit made one think not of art history but of Halloween.
Far more successful was the performance of the quartet, for which Kopatchinskaja served as "leader," in the 18th-century manner. This was intense, vital, go-for-broke playing with great rhythmic punch and luminous tone. And here, too, was one interpolation that actually said something. The excellent mezzo-soprano Nerea Berraondo (her name inexcusably unlisted in the program) sang Schubert's original song at the start of the second movement.
Overall, this was one of those bold failures that people will probably remember fondly. The audience responded with enthusiasm at the end. And it's obvious that the Moldovan-born Kopatchinskaja has earned the respect and affection of the orchestra. Coppock, it should be noted, said from the stage that this expanded version of "Death and the Maiden" will be recorded live during performances this weekend — the orchestra's first recording made in its new hall.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.