Minutes before Saturday evening’s livestream by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra started, a camera panned slowly down the darkened Ordway Concert Hall, revealing rows of empty seats where animated concertgoers would normally be chatting.
It was a sobering reminder of the times we live in, and how disorienting it must be for musicians to be playing to an expanse of unpopulated space rather than real, live humans.
In the circumstances, the work that opened the program, the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, had a ritualistic, almost religious feeling. Played by Eunae Koh, the 13-minute movement unraveled patiently, implacably, a virtual symbol of the persistence and fortitude needed when hard times threaten.
Koh had stepped in to play the piece on short notice, after works by Errollyn Wallen and Arthur Bliss were dropped from the planned program. You would never have thought it — standing in a spotlight with a COVID mask on, Koh was technically unflappable, a model of poise and empathy in this great but taxing music.
Slightly shorter than the Bach Chaconne, “The River” is an insinuating piece that draws the listener into what Akinmusire calls “a tool to meditate.” There was plenty for Cohen to get his teeth into technically, from zip-wire glissandos through plinked pizzicatos and harmonics, to the gentle stroking of the instrument’s tailpiece with the bow.
A short intermission led to the last work in this hourlong recital, the String Quartet in A Minor by English composer William Walton.
This is a rarity on the concert platform, and it’s not clear why. Packed with nervous energy and a penchant for sudden spurts of generous lyricism, it made a bracing impression in this performance by a group of SPCO principals — concertmaster Steven Copes, violinist Kyu-Young Kim, violist Maiya Papach and cellist Julie Albers.
Firecracker accents and jumping syncopations mark Walton’s writing in three of the four movements — “barbed wire entanglements,” the composer called them. It’s easy to overdo these, but the players judged energy levels astutely and kept the music moving without pushing it to an uncomfortable overdrive. The wistful, elusive quality of the slow movement was sensitively caught, too, the need to wear masks not seeming to impair the close communication between the players.
By now musicians and audiences are, understandably, beyond impatient for concert-giving to return to normal, and virtual performances undoubtedly have their limitations.
But this SPCO livestream had an emblematic, almost defiant quality — high-quality music-making achieved despite the crushing weight of negativity around it.
It was free, too, and the next concert in the series — on Nov. 14, featuring works by Brahms, Richard Strauss and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson — will be well worth tuning into.