It has been quite a few days for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. First, on Thursday, came the announcement of a five-city tour to Italy, Germany and Austria in November, the ensemble's first performances in Europe without a conductor. Then, on Friday evening, the 2016-17 season opened at the Ordway Concert Hall in St. Paul, in an atmosphere of bounding confidence and celebration.
Probably not by coincidence, Friday's concert was fronted by the iconoclastic Moldovan-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, an artistic partner at the orchestra. Kopatchinskaja will lead November's tour to Europe and played Prokofiev's Second Concerto in a performance bristling with bravado, freshness, and a devil-may-care attitude toward the more stifling behavioral conventions of classical music-making.
Who, for instance, needs a conductor when Kopatchinskaja is on the platform? Swiveling kinetically to mark rhythms, flicking eyebrows at a soloist to cue an entry, or lunging toward a section to ensure trenchant articulation, she is a crackerjack of bundled energy, sharp of reflex and full of palpitating ideas about the music.
Amid the body choreography, Kopatchinskaja's solo playing in the opening movement of the Prokofiev concerto was notably combustible, flicking from keening lyricism to flat-out, scattergun virtuosity with lightning immediacy. The famous cantilena melody launching the adagio was floated in some distant echo-chamber of the memory before emerging, on reprise, to a full-blooded, passionate engagement of the present.
The finale crackled with caprice and unpredictability, both Kopatchinskaja and the SPCO players locking vigorously into the gleeful malevolence of Prokofiev's rhythmic patterns. Kopatchinskaja's trick-or-treat grimace to the audience at the concerto's cheeky payoff is the kind of gesture that has led one commentator to call her "slightly mad." The truth is that she is exactly what all professional soloists should be, but not all are: totally taken by the music, and living it full-on at the point of actual performance.
Symphonies by Mozart and Bizet framed the concerto. A welcome element of balance and restraint informed the orchestra's approach to Mozart's Symphony No. 25, where it's too easy to overplay the music's minor-key dramatics. Instead we got a pleasingly nuanced, strongly characterized account of the music, beautifully shaped and shaded from the leader's chair by associate concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini.
Principal oboe Kathryn Greenbank made gorgeously plangent contributions in the opening movement and was on hand again for the famous solo in the Bizet Symphony's Adagio, whose sultry, sun-soaked languor was pitch-perfect. The outer movements, though undoubtedly "vivo" and "vivace" as Bizet requested, felt a little hard-driven in places and lost some charm and lightness.
A swaggering, bucolic account of the scherzo, though, restored those qualities, the violins levitating elegantly, the cellos providing both rasp and subtle balancing of their drone effect in the trio section.
Europe, are you ready? One chamber orchestra, honed, happy, and fit for purpose, is headed in your general direction.
A recent transplant from Ireland, Terry Blain is a Twin Cities music and theater writer.