Thomas Zehetmair & Julie Albers — Images via askonasholt.co.uk & cellistjuliealbers.com

Adès, Saint-Saëns & Mozart

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Conducted by Thomas Zehetmair

In writing about classical music, describing a performance as “graceful” often connotes some degree of coldness and restraint, whereas a word like “emotional” connotes a level of drama that can easily slide into the overwrought. What struck me about Saturday’s concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was the consistent balance they struck between these qualities. Led by artistic partner Thomas Zehetmair, who left his violin in its case in favor of the conductor’s podium, the SPCO turned in characterful performances that definitely tended toward the Apollonian, but without any lack of warmth or emotion.

The concert began with Thomas Adès’s Three Studies From Couperin, the contemporary British composer’s orchestration of three harpsichord pieces by his French baroque forebear. Much like Anton Webern in his popular arrangement of Bach’s Ricercar a 6, Adès uses the klangfarbenmelodie technique of passing the melody around from one instrumental group to another, sometimes just a few notes at a time. The SPCO handled the piece’s twists and turns with delicacy and nuance. In the reflective and rhythmically flexible outer movements, the orchestra often seemed like a human body inhaling and exhaling breath, while the central movement received a buoyant performance.

Next up was Camille Saint-Saëns’s single-movement Cello Concerto No. 1, one of the pinnacles of the repertoire for cello and orchestra. Here, the solo spotlight was on Julie Albers, who will formally join the SPCO as its principal cellist later this year. The performance augured well for her future with the orchestra, for her sound melded perfectly with that of the other players. Of course, this being a virtuoso concerto, Albers was the star of the show, but she seemed intensely attentive to the way her part often emerged from and folded back in to the larger ensemble. It was an energetic and at the same time refined performance, with no signs of straining, even in the most breakneck passages.

After the intermission came Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, his most famous symphony and one of his most distinctive pieces of music. Zehetmair and the SPCO gave it a crisp, nimble performance, highlighting the dancing qualities of all four movements. This is, of course, a symphony with some storm clouds hovering over it, which has led some to interpret it as an overall grave and tragic work. Zehetmair and the SPCO struck more of a balance between the piece’s darker and lighter sides, giving the more intense and somber sections their due without weighing down the whole symphony with sturm und drang.

Listening to all three of these pieces in succession, I couldn’t help but notice how they all seemed to return to their beginnings at their ends. This was most obvious in the thematically cyclic Saint-Saëns, but also in the moods of the Adès and the rhythms of the Mozart. In any case, all told, this was a satisfying concert that benefited greatly from the clarity and intimacy of the orchestra’s new concert hall and that projected a clear sense of direction for the SPCO as it continues the process of reinventing itself as more of a large chamber ensemble than a small orchestra.

Thomas Zehetmair photo by Mark Savage
Julie Albers photo by Chester Higgins Jr.

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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.