Aaron Jay Kernis & Paul Neubauer — Images via yale.edu & dianesaldick.com

Kernis’s Viola Concerto

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
With Paul Neubauer & Scott Yoo

It can’t be easy writing a viola concerto. The subtle, unassertive sound of the instrument can easily get lost amidst a full complement of winds, strings, and percussion. Paul Hindemith and Alfred Schnittke, echoing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, dealt with the problem by banishing the violins from the stage. By contrast, in Aaron Jay Kernis’s new concerto — premiered Thursday evening by Paul Neubauer and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Scott Yoo — the viola’s difficulty making itself heard came across as an integral element of the piece, with the sound of Neubauer’s instrument sometimes rising above, sometimes blending into, and sometimes doing battle with the orchestra.

The concerto’s opening movement, Braids, was fast-paced and energetic, with rapidly bounding harmonies and jerky rhythms. This was the movement where Neubauer seemed to struggle the most to rise above the ensemble, whereas in the second movement, the lyrical Romance, the viola had a clear melodic line that worked in tandem with the orchestral accompaniment. The third movement, A Song My Mother Taught Me, turned out to be the concerto’s most distinctive, as well as its longest. It took the form of a set of variations on two interlocking themes, the Yiddish folk song Tumbalalaika and a melody from a short piano piece by Robert Schumann. For much of this movement, the orchestra’s primary role was to harmonize on the solo part, but toward the end, the air turned toward conflict, with rattling chains and pounding drums among the many other elements interrupting Neubauer’s viola line.

Neubauer was an excellent advocate for the piece and for his oft-derided instrument, coaxing out a singing tone in the more lyrical sections and dashing off the more aggressive, syncopated portions with what looked like ease. Thursday’s concert was also an opportunity for Kernis to be formally inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, and it seemed right that he should accept this honor in Minnesota, where so many of his pieces have been premiered and recorded.

This weekend’s performances were meant to be conducted by SPCO artistic partner Roberto Abbado, who had to cancel due to illness. While Yoo stepped in ably for Kernis’s premiere, the other two pieces on the program — Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète and Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 — were led from the first chair by concertmaster Steven Copes. The more intimate, chamber-like approach of performing without a conductor paid off particularly well in the Haydn, which featured vibrant playing and plenty of sharp edges throughout. Stravinsky’s austere neoclassical ballet seemed to gain some energy from the decision to have most of the musicians play standing up, but it felt incomplete without the element of dance. Still, both pieces did a great deal to whet the audience’s appetite for the increased number of conductorless concerts that are on tap for next season.

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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.