Do orchestras need conductors? Not always. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has regularly produced outstanding performances in recent seasons, without a stick being waved in front of it.
The orchestra’s transition to what it calls “a primarily unconducted ensemble” is set to continue with the 2017-18 season, announced Wednesday morning. No fewer than 18 of the 22 programs involving the full orchestra will be performed without a conductor.
Six of these concerts star SPCO players as featured soloists, including the season-opening performances with violinist Ruggero Allifranchini and cellist Julie Albers joining pianist Orion Weiss for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (Sept. 15-17).
The shift from conducted concerts means musical leadership is increasingly provided by the orchestra’s roster of “artistic partners,” musicians specially appointed for their expertise in particular areas of repertoire.
All five of the SPCO’s artistic partners will appear during the 2017-18 season, overseeing eight different programs. Of these, the concerts featuring quirky, mold-breaking Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja are especially attractive. Kopatchinskaja’s “Death and the Maiden” Schubert program last September was a high point of the current season. She returns to the composer with “Fragments,” a concert also featuring music by Bach, Hartmann and Kurtág (April 26-May 5, 2018).
Another date to mark in the calendar? Earlier in the season, Kopatchinskaja is set to appear as the part-singing, part-speaking narrator in Arnold Schoenberg’s avant-garde masterpiece “Pierrot Lunaire” (Oct. 27-29).
Concerts featuring Englishman Jonathan Cohen, the most recently appointed SPCO artistic partner, look equally interesting. A baroque specialist, the conductor/keyboardist/cellist will bring a fresh pair of ears to seasonal performances of Handel’s “Messiah” with Matthew Culloton’s Minneapolis-based choir the Singers on vocal duty (Dec. 14-17).
The new season also features more Haydn, a composer the SPCO is currently playing with unrivaled wit and imagination. Symphonies 49, 59 and 6 are all on the calendar (Jan. 19-30, Feb. 16-17 and May 18-20), along with an unmissable opportunity to hear the intimate string quartet version of “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” (March 30-31).
With its new season, the SPCO also continues pushing the envelope in terms of performance venues and how its concerts are presented.
Following a trial run earlier this season, a series of three “Happy Hour” concerts are scheduled for 2017-18, with early-evening starts and snacks available from food trucks parked outside the Ordway Concert Hall.
A similar series of concerts will take place at the Turf Club, a rock venue on University Avenue in St. Paul, mirroring the orchestra’s successful mini-residency already in place at the Icehouse bar and restaurant in Minneapolis. The orchestra wants to perform in “unexpected places,” as SPCO artistic director Kyu-Young Kim puts it, “where young people are already gathering” for their evening entertainment.
Free tickets will continue to be available for children and students to all regular SPCO concerts, in an extension of the admirable New Generation Initiative introduced eight months ago. So far this season, the program has helped quadruple the number of children and students attending concerts.
At a time when orchestras everywhere are straining to sharpen their appeal, the SPCO’s 2017-18 season offers a bold, imaginative template for how to make classical music more relevant and accessible in the modern age. With 16 different performance venues, seven world or regional premieres mixed with familiar composers and compositions — by an orchestra that leads the world in the art of medium-size ensemble playing — the new season offers something for virtually everybody, from seasoned aficionados to those interested in attending their very first classical concert.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.