Patricia Kopatchinskaja — Image via

Patricia Kopatchinskaja & The SPCO

Mozart, Mansurian, Bartók & Mendelssohn

With Mozart, you think you know what you’re going to get. The composer’s music is relentlessly inventive and often uniquely beautiful, but it almost always “sounds like Mozart.” But then there’s the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, in which a slow, stately, and severe introduction leads in to a fugue that sounds like someone has put Bach in a blender. Dissonances abound with no attempt to hide them, and on the rare occasion that Mozart sneaks in a bit of his own characteristic style, it stands out all the more. It’s not what you expect from Mozart at all. And that’s why it was the perfect choice to open violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja‘s first weekend of concerts with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, for the ensemble’s new artistic partner is clearly committed to shattering people’s preconceptions about classical music.

In a field with many stellar musicians and considerably fewer stellar performers, Kopatchinskaja has established herself as both, with a boldly spontaneous and communicative approach to live performance backed by technical mastery and musical insight. In this weekend’s concerts, she played on every piece, sometimes as a soloist and sometimes as a leader within the ensemble, but always demonstrating an acute awareness of both the audience and the other musicians on the stage.

After the weird and wonderful Mozart palate-cleanser, Kopatchinskaja and the SPCO launched into Tigran Mansurian’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Four Serious Songs. Often reminiscent of the polystylistic approach of the composer’s late contemporary Alfred Schnittke, Mansurian’s concerto is the sort of somber but heartfelt piece that only works in the hands of an advocate, and Kopatchinskaja was just that, injecting particularly intense feeling into the piece’s two extended solo sections. The first half of the concert concluded with Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, a short suite of nicely varied pieces including a star turn for Kopatchinskaja in the exotic Pe loc (In One Spot) and a rousing finale in the form of two fast dances called Mărunțel.

After the intermission came what was, for me, the highlight of the concert, the little-known Violin Concerto in D minor by the 13-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Written while the prodigy composer was still establishing his own style, absorbing influences from predecessors as varied as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Giovanni Battista Viotti, the piece’s sense of simultaneous confidence and discovery was a perfect match for Kopatchinskaja’s talents and inclinations. She and the SPCO tore through the concerto’s angular opening movement and provided a spacious account of its slow central movement before giving an edgy take on its boisterous finale.

The concert ended with a suite of folk pieces from Kopatchinskaja’s native Moldova in which she was joined by her parents, violinist-violist Emilia Kopatchinskaja and cimbalom player Viktor Kopatchinsky, and SPCO guest principal bassist Zachary Cohen. Collectively titled Rapsodia, these uninhibited pieces proved an ideal closer; the only downside was that the acoustics of Eden Prairie’s Wooddale Church, where I heard the program, were none too friendly to Kopatchinsky’s cimbalom, making me look forward all the more to the SPCO’s move into their new purpose-built concert hall. In any case, it was a particular treat to hear the rest of the SPCO string players rejoin the ensemble to imitate the titular skylarks of the last piece, Ciocârlia.

Though Kopatchinskaja is an established presence in Europe, this weekend’s concerts represent her first appearances with a professional orchestra in the U.S., and judging from the audience’s wowed response (including multiple standing ovations), the SPCO has scored a coup by signing her to a long-term partnership. After one more performance of this program tomorrow in Mahtomedi, Kopatchinskaja and the orchestra will give a series of concerts next weekend featuring the Mozart, Bartók, and Rapsodia pieces alongside an arrangement of Schubert’s string quartet Death and the Maiden. Based on what I heard last night, audience members — and SPCO musicians — can look forward to being kept on the edges of their seats.

Photo by Eduard Tichonov

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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.