The turbulent state of American life may have classical music lovers pondering how to address the moment with music. Do you want something emotionally epic, with a massive orchestra sound and a troubled heart on its sleeve? Or do you seek a sonic retreat, a place of rest from the stress?
When it comes to livestreaming concerts, those in the latter camp have more options, as COVID-19 has made bigness a bad idea. Just as large gatherings have been forsaken in favor of quiet conversations, so have the Twin Cities' two major orchestras downsized their online performances.
In the Minnesota Orchestra's case, that means divvying the ensemble into pods, brass conversing with brass, woodwind players exchanging lines in socially distanced circles. The strings still gather, but in limited numbers.
Hence, programs feature smaller-scale repertoire like the two 18th-century works in Friday night's well executed concert, which was broadcast live from Orchestra Hall and continues to be available on demand at mnorch.vhx.tv. Mozart wrote for small orchestras, so the Bassoon Concerto on which Fei Xie soloed was ideal for the occasion. And even though the classical era's most prominent composer of African heritage, Joseph Boulogne (aka the Chevalier de St.-Georges), led famously large Parisian orchestras, his First Symphony doesn't need one.
Hence, intimacy was the order of the evening, beginning with music director Osmo Vänskä conducting three antiphonal Renaissance brass works by Giovanni Gabrieli. If stress reduction is what you seek, a spirit of salve permeates these pieces. And, if lightness is desired, a buoyantly playful woodwind quartet by Jean Francaix should satisfy.
Mozart could summon up troubled tones with the best of them, but the Bassoon Concerto he composed at age 18 is unceasingly warm and lyrical. Xie has been the orchestra's principal bassoonist since 2017, but this was his first go with the orchestra as a soloist, and it was an unqualified success. Whether smoothly negotiating the fastest passages, sweetly singing on the lovely slow movement, or crafting his own hypnotic cadenzas, Xie was virtuosic throughout.
In its admirable efforts to program more music by composers of color, the Minnesota Orchestra found a fine fit in following the Mozart concerto with Boulogne's First Symphony. The two were contemporaries clearly influenced by one another's work. Mozart spent most of 1778 in Paris — when Boulogne was near the peak of his popularity as a violinist, conductor and composer — and it's possible he may have even attended this symphony's premiere.
With a structure and sound reminiscent of midcareer Haydn, the symphony is pleasant and unprovocative (at least to modern ears). And it was given all the appropriate effervescence by Vänskä and the orchestra.
Boulogne's music clearly deserves to be heard, but so does his fascinating life story. The son of a French aristocrat and an African-Guadeloupean slave, he became not only a major musician but a celebrated swordsman and, eventually, a figure in the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, a Hollywood film is in the works.
SPCO: A brilliant rerun
When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra announced the cancellation of concerts through June, it sounded as if it would be presenting something similar to the Minnesota Orchestra: livestreamed performances from an empty hall. But all of its January offerings are revivals of pre-COVID performances, gleaned from its ample online Concert Library.
On Saturday night, the orchestra presented two Beethoven pieces: His "Coriolan" Overture and Fourth Piano Concerto, the latter a 2017 performance with Jeremy Denk as soloist. Before each, another artistic partner, commentator Rob Kapilow, talked about the two works in freshly recorded segments.
For those who find Beethoven's music daunting, Kapilow may illuminate a path inward. Personally, I grow weary of theories that impose narratives upon pieces with no supporting evidence from the composer, as Kapilow does for the Fourth Piano Concerto.
But get past that and you've made it to some of the best Beethoven I've experienced recently — a commanding performance of the concerto, with Denk offering an emotionally penetrating interpretation full of technical skill and deeply involving twists and turns. And the engaging cinematography makes him an even more entertaining player to watch, one sometimes seemingly swept away by the music. You may be, too.
With: bassoonist Fei Xie
Where: On demand for free at minnesotaorchestra.org.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
With: pianist Jeremy Denk and commentator Rob Kapilow.
When/where: 6:30 p.m. Thu., free, thespco.org
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org