This was not a soft opening. In these days of uncertainty about physically crowded spaces, it would have been understandable if the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra returned to concerts before live audiences at its home venue — St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall — with some reticence or, in a phrase we've heard way too often over the past 18 months, "an abundance of caution."
But no. The air at Friday night's opening concert of the SPCO's 2021-22 season hummed with excitement, and, despite performing before an indoor audience for the first time in 18 months, the orchestra showed no signs of rust. On the contrary, the musicians played with such palpable passion and explosive energy that the concert was the most thrilling I've attended since well before the pandemic closed up the concert halls.
Yes, the SPCO is clearly excited to be back playing for people again. It was present in every piece of the six on the program, which will be repeated Saturday evening, from the comical glee of a Gioachino Rossini operatic overture to a pair of engaging minimalist miniatures to some fiery tango to the most powerful and deeply engaged interpretation of Peter Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" I've ever encountered.
This was a season opener unlike any in memory. Not just because it felt like a triumph to experience classical music of the highest quality once again. This concert had something extra, in that the pieces chosen fit the mood perfectly. The fun found in the Rossini contrasted with the comfort of the familiar Air from J.S. Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, but the entire inspired assemblage of works worked, the old and new(er) receiving the same adrenaline infusion.
Two pieces begged a question reminiscent of the old one about a tree falling in the forest: If you premiere something with no audience in the hall, does that qualify as a premiere? Both Tyson Davis' Tableaux No. X and Viet Cuong's "Circling Back" are SPCO commissions that debuted during the pandemic, receiving their first performances via livestream. On Friday, the communication between musicians and listeners became a two-way street on each piece.
In the case of Davis' piece, SPCO principal trumpeter Lynn Erickson gave voice to the hovering uncertainty of this point in time, mixing assertive fanfares with questioning tones, the piece's muted sections shadowy and haunting. Conversely, Cuong's duet for oboe and cello was a joyous adrenaline fest, long tremulous phrases piling note upon note in fleet fashion.
While the Tchaikovsky Serenade was clearly the headliner, the linchpin of the program felt like Osvaldo Golijov's "Last Round." Written as a requiem for tango master Astor Piazzolla, Golijov's Argentine countryman, it was ideal for expressing the anxiety, sadness and rage of our age, two string quartets seemingly arguing with one another while a lone bass refereed.
The Bach Air set into stronger relief the darkness that lurks within the forceful opening movement of the Tchaikovsky Serenade, which felt disarmingly urgent. That made for an especially sharp contrast with the ensuing effervescent waltz. The elegiac third movement was delivered with tenderness yet not a hint of schmaltz, and the finale felt like a festive dance.
Had the orchestra reprised the Serenade's opening theme with as much power and passion as the first time around, it may have been a perfect choice — or perhaps overpowering. Instead, a softer landing was chosen for this concert, something more reflective than exultant. With so many emotions to process upon this reunion, that may have been the wisest way to go.
What: Works by Gioachino Rossini, Tyson Davis, Viet Cuong, Osvaldo Golijov, J.S. Bach and Peter Tchaikovsky. When: 8 p.m. Sat. Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Tickets: $50-$12 (children and students free), available at 651-291-1144 or thespco.org.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com