Google Brahms and you get a gallery of photos showing a grim-faced, heavily bearded individual. He doesn’t exactly look like a cordial conversationalist for dinner parties.
It’s a stark contract with the music of Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s delightfully jocular season-closing performance at Ordway Concert Hall Friday morning. The man in the photograph seems implacably sobersided. The Serenade, on the other hand, is sunny and at times almost ridiculously carefree.
The opening movement smiled affably in the SPCO’s interpretation. Warm, affectionately shaped solos by oboist William Welter emerged from Brahms’ richly detailed woodwind writing, offset by fluttering clarinet motifs. The Scherzo had a lazy bucolic swagger, while the finale burbled with an easygoing bonhomie, topped by drizzles of delectably tart piccolo trilling.
The more inward-looking slow movement was thoughtfully shaded under violist Maiya Papach’s leadership (the Second Serenade has no violins) as Matthew Wilson floated a plangent, soft-toned horn solo.
The concert started in somewhat edgier fashion, with Los Angeles composer Andrew Norman’s “Gran Turismo.” Scored for eight violins, “Gran Turismo” is probably the only classical work inspired by a video game about car racing. It shot along at dizzying velocity in a performance led by SPCO concertmaster Steven Copes, the instruments dodging and weaving as if probing for an opportunity to perform spectacular passing maneuvers on one another.
Norman cites “baroque string virtuosity” as another influence for “Gran Turismo,” something that was certainly referenced in the souped-up Vivaldi licks that occasionally popped out of the piece’s super-busy textures.
The eight SPCO violinists gelled electrifyingly, their dynamic body language adding considerable visual impact as the music drove relentlessly to what Norman calls its “higher, louder, faster” point of conclusion.
Much of “Gran Turismo’s” inexhaustible fizz carried over into the performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, which closed the concert.
Plenty of conductors find the symphony’s opening set of chords difficult to coordinate. Working conductorless with Copes again in the leader’s chair, the SPCO players timed and weighted them beautifully.
Their interpretation may unwittingly have set a new world record for the longest-ever gap between the first and second movements of a symphony. The pause happened when an instrument broke in the horn section. SPCO Artistic Director Kyu-Young Kim cracked an impromptu joke or two to fill the silence, until a cigarette lighter kindly offered by an audience member was used to weld the instrument back together.
Eight minutes later, the symphony was on again, proceeding via an elegant, dapper account of the Andante cantabile to a finale brimming with optimism and brio.
Beethoven’s music is often said to be about triumph over adversity. But Beethoven could have never predicted the role a cigarette lighter would play in triumphing over that particular struggle.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.