Like their locked-out Minnesota Orchestra colleagues, members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have no contract. But unlike their colleagues, the SPCO's musicians are being allowed, at least for now, to play and talk -- to continue performing while negotiations proceed.
While hardly ideal, this arrangement does suggest that reason and civility have not wholly fled the Twin Cities' beleaguered orchestral scene. And on Friday morning at the Ordway, the play-and-talk policy enabled the SPCO (bolstered by a few friends from across the river) to offer as stunning a concert as I've heard in recent years: a superb Wagner-Nielsen-Beethoven program, led by Denmark's Thomas Dausgaard in his long-anticipated SPCO debut.
Chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra since 1997, Dausgaard dances knowingly with SPCO-sized ensembles, from which he conjures sonorities of both chamber-music-like delicacy and symphonic weight. Both were manifest in Friday's program, which began with the dreamy serenity of Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" and built to the surging, Dionysian ecstasy that crowns Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
Seldom has the "Siegfried Idyll" -- Wagner's secretly written, Christmas-morning gift to his wife, Cosima -- sounded as tranquil and tender as it did in Friday's account. Dausgaard found a vein of playfulness and fancy that conductors often miss. The SPCO's tone was burnished and caressing, with moments of sheer magic. No one would have guessed that this is an orchestra under the gun.
To Carl Nielsen, the clarinet was a contradictory character, "at once warmhearted and completely hysterical, gentle as balm and screechy as a streetcar on badly greased rails." This moodiness infiltrates Nielsen's spare, engrossing Clarinet Concerto (1928), arguably the finest work in its genre since Mozart's. Its single movement is streaked with alienation; Emil Telmanyi, who conducted the premiere, called it "music from another planet."
Alexander Fiterstein, who teaches clarinet at the University of Minnesota, proved a mercurial and sure-footed soloist, fully equal to Nielsen's virtuosic and histrionic demands. Willing to make unbeautiful sounds when the composer calls for them, Fiterstein (who more than holds his own in a city of superb clarinetists) was especially effective in introspective passages; Dausgaard navigated his countryman's score with a practiced hand.
The Seventh Symphony, Beethoven's tumultuous essay on rhythm, was the conductor's pièce de résistance, cyclonic and exuberant. The music felt unstoppable; the orchestra was a marvel of accuracy and verve. Play (and talk) on, please!
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.