Image courtesy The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Zacharias & The SPCO

Stravinsky, Mozart, Ives, and Schubert

When a concert program juxtaposes music from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, there is always a risk that the result will prove to be a less-than-coherent experience for the audience. But there was no danger of that in this weekend’s concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, led by pianist, conductor, and SPCO artistic partner Christian Zacharias. Playing music by Stravinsky, Mozart, Ives, and Schubert, the orchestra and Zacharias rendered each piece with an appropriately chamber-like sensibility, building connections between the composers’ very different styles.

The program began with Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, scored for a small ensemble weighted heavily toward the winds and lower strings. If the opening movement was perhaps not quite as electric as it could have been, Zacharias and the orchestra made up for this with a patient, buoyant performance of the slower second movement and a driving, determined rendition of the finale.

Christian Zacharias — Image via christianzacharias.comNext came a sparkling performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Situating his piano in the middle of the orchestra, rather than in front, and playing with the lid closed, Zacharias eschewed showy virtuosity and instead integrated his graceful sound with that of the other players. This allowed the orchestra’s rich contributions throughout the piece to shine through, particularly in the energetic finale. After the Mozart, Zacharias responded to the audience’s applause by launching into his encore, a thrilling whirlwind of Scarlatti.

Listening to the music of Charles Ives, one gets the sense that this successful insurance executive by day, amateur composer by night, may have been just a little bit insane. The SPCO’s performance of Ives’s Three Places in New England certainly gave that impression, particularly in the second movement, whose cacophonous mélange of marching-band motifs and layered dissonances provoked the audience to laughter. This particular piece has some special significance for the SPCO, as they won a Grammy for their recording of it and Copland’s Appalachian Spring in 1979. Recent retirements having left the group with only three musicians who played on that recording, it was reassuring to hear that they still have the measure of the work.

The last piece on the program was the 19-year-old Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, a cornucopia of memorable melodies from the first movement’s opening theme — possibly the sunniest bit of music ever written — to the finale’s theatrical coda. Once again, “sparkling” is probably the best term to describe the performance given by the SPCO and Zacharias. And in a symphony that gives each part of the orchestra its own opportunities to shine, everything seemed perfectly balanced. Like everything else on the program, the piece was infused with a collaborative spirit, propulsive energy, and above all an infectious sense of fun.

Archival SPCO photo by Sarah Rubinstein
Christian Zacharias photo by Nicole Chuard

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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