The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has always been an admirably versatile group, but when it packages the fresh and familiar on the same program, the familiar tends to get a far less spirited reading.
Friday morning’s concert at Eden Prairie’s Wooddale Church proved an exception. While the local premiere of a violin concerto by Canadian composer Vivian Fung — powerfully performed by soloist Kristin Lee — created the most indelible impression, it was complemented by a very involving interpretation of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” So old and new both received their due on a program in which each piece was full of radical mood shifts.
But not all of the old stuff overflowed with insight. Joseph Haydn’s 80th Symphony opened the concert on a fairly ho-hum note, conductor Steven Schick failing to convince the musicians to put much oomph in its oom-pah-pah. Perhaps they were conserving their concentration for the challenges in Fung’s Violin Concerto.
Indonesian gamelan music plays a major role in Fung’s sound world. Her Violin Concerto employs harmonies more commonly found in traditional Asian music and tonalities reminiscent of bells being struck and stroked. It’s a wild ride of a piece, and Lee was astounding throughout, coaxing all sorts of unexpected sounds from her violin as the music careened from high and haunting to rapid and raucous to shimmering to angry. It’s one of the most bipolar concertos I’ve ever heard, but Lee made it invariably exciting, suffusing her playing with passion.
The concert’s second half was much smaller in scale, starting with a percussion-forward performance of Gabriela Ortiz’s Mexican stylistic stew, “Vitrales de ambar.” Then 13 musicians took the stage to perform the original version of Aaron Copland’s complete ballet music for “Appalachian Spring.” Yes, it started as a chamber work before being orchestrated and condensed to a suite by the composer (a version that won the SPCO its first Grammy in 1980). Rather than solos soaring above a bed of sumptuous strings, the original is more like a conversation among equals. It travels a different dramatic arc than the suite, often choosing paths of tension and apprehension instead of lush comfort. The SPCO musicians made it disarmingly intimate, devoid of grandiosity.
– by Rob Hubbard
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