Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at Ordway Concert Hall — Image via thespco.org

Opening Night at the Ordway Concert Hall

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Works by Prokofiev, Ives, Tsontakis & Beethoven

For some time now, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Ordway Center have been talking up the virtues of their new $42 million concert hall. We’ve been tantalized with the prospect of an acoustically superior, intimate setting for experiencing chamber music. We’ve been told that the SPCO musicians would be spurred on to greater artistic heights by being brought into closer contact with each other and their audience — not to mention not having to fill a huge space with sound from a physically isolated stage. In short, we’ve been promised that the hall would be a game-changer.

So far, based on Thursday night’s opening concert, it sounds like that promise will be kept. Playing carefully chosen works by Prokofiev, Ives, Tsontakis and Beethoven, the SPCO gave performances of incredible nuance, collaborative spirit, and emotional intensity. And at least from where I was sitting, you could hear every note.

Ordway Concert Hall — Image via thespco.orgThe first thing that struck me upon entering the new hall was how small it seemed. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The officially approved euphemism, as referenced above, is “intimate,” and fair enough. After all, with a capacity of 1100, the new hall is hardly tiny. It just feels like everyone — audience and musicians — is closer together, even compared to the similarly sized Ted Mann Concert Hall. We were told that no seat would be more than 90 feet from the stage, but that didn’t prepare me for how it would feel. It’s definitely an improvement. There’s a difference between observing and engaging, and the hall’s design is clearly meant to encourage the latter. And its most striking visual feature — the waves of wooden dowels concealing the high ceiling — certainly doesn’t hurt matters.

As for the music, as soon as the orchestra launched into Prokofiev’s youthful, Haydnesque Classical symphony, you could hear the difference. This is a piece with a lot of cleverly hidden syncopation, and from the precision with which the musicians handled all of it, it was clear that they could actually hear each other better than ever. It’s also a piece with a great deal going on at once, and as such it was a showpiece for the hall’s impressive transparency, from which the orchestra’s middle voices, like the clarinets and violas, seemed to gain the most.

After the Prokofiev came a last-minute addition to the program, Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. It was a smart choice, demonstrating both the string players’ ability to play extremely quietly and the hall’s warm and welcoming response to that kind of playing. It also showed off the hall’s spatial characteristics; in a slight rearrangement of the composer’s instructions, the strings were on stage, while a wind quartet played backstage and trumpeter Sycil Mathai played from the first-tier balcony. The sound of the winds in particular seemed to come from the hall itself, a neat effect.

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at Ordway Concert Hall — Image via thespco.orgNext up was the premiere of a new arrangement of composer George Tsontakis’s Coraggio, adapted from a movement from his third string quartet. A spiky but accessible work with hints of Bartók, the piece traveled through multiple emotional states over the course of its brief nine minutes, with the hall’s transparency shining through again in the denser sections. The performance gave hope that among the other benefits of the new hall will be a friendlier platform for the SPCO to share its commitment to new music.

After the intermission came the centerpiece of the program, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. Back in October, the orchestra played this piece in the old Ordway Music Theater, and I remember watching the musicians struggle, sawing away furiously, to make an impression during the biggest climaxes. There was no such struggling in Thursday’s performance. The SPCO took the opportunity to play with greater precision, a wider dynamic range, and more subtle coloring of individual phrases. Altogether, it was a powerful performance of one of the crowning works of the classical tradition. Incidentally, this was the only piece in which most of the musicians played sitting down, understandably given its length, but this didn’t translate into a cut in energy; many of the players were on the edges of their seats, as was much of the audience.

While it is of course too early to say, the Ordway’s new hall looks set to be the game-changer the SPCO’s fans were hoping for. Of course there will be challenges. It will take some time for the musicians to fully adjust to their new space. Also, more prosaically, the extended portion of the Ordway’s lobby is very small, so things are likely to get a little crowded on nights when there are events in both the concert hall and the theater. But all told, the opening of the new hall creates a great opportunity to engage old and new audiences more fully by creating more unique, unforgettable experiences, and the musicians seem inspired by and up to the challenge.

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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.