Dear St. Paul Chamber Orchestra: About this conductor-less model you've been moving toward …
I know that you want to emphasize the collaborative nature of music-making. And you've proven that you can create some magnificent performances without anyone gesturing from the lip of the stage. But does that mean we won't be able to share in the pure ecstasy that emanates from a conductor like Gabor Takacs-Nagy?
That's how I felt after Friday's midday concert, when the wonderfully animated Hungarian conductor (and a chamber music legend as leader of the Takacs Quartet) made his SPCO debut and threw himself passionately into each piece on the final program of the orchestra's 2022-23 season.
Takacs-Nagy was not only a joy to behold, but a leader with such strong interpretive ideas that each of the concert's three pieces held ideas, insights and emotional epiphanies that I'd never encountered from the works before. And that's saying something, when you consider that the finale was Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, an orchestral staple. This may have been the most thrilling performance of the SPCO's season, a richly gratifying showcase for an orchestra at the peak of its powers.
That goes not only for the orchestra as a whole, but for the tremendously gifted musicians in its ranks, including principal clarinetist Sang Yoon Kim. He was the soloist for the world premiere of a work by composer Claude Debussy.
OK, Debussy's "Premiere Rhapsodie" debuted in 1910, but the SPCO is one of three orchestras that commissioned an all-new version for chamber orchestra. Geoffrey Gordon, arranger of the new version, proved perfectly in tune with Debussy's orchestral voice, and Kim sounded splendid, especially during a dancing scherzo section.
Another work expanded from its original form was Edvard Grieg's String Quartet in G Minor, presented at this weekend's concerts in Takacs-Nagy's arrangement for string orchestra. This was where Takacs-Nagy's enthusiasm became palpable throughout the Ordway Concert Hall. This longtime leader of Switzerland's Verbier Festival Orchestra took a work that sounds stormy in string quartet form and turned it into an emotional tornado, interspersed with absorbing meditations, lilting waltzes and folk-flavored hoedowns.
Speaking of evoking rural settings, Takacs-Nagy and the SPCO capped the concert with one of the most finely crafted and deeply absorbing performances of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (the "Pastoral") that I've ever experienced. Growing its ranks to 38 musicians — still considerably fewer than what most symphony orchestras would unleash upon the piece — it was an interpretation in which inner voices emerged, interplay was emphasized, and a sweet subtlety reigned.
The second movement ("Scene by the brook") was marvelously mellifluous, with each musician onstage equally committed to soft attacks and a gently swaying feel. But the ensuing country dance also proved delightful, interrupted by a chillingly violent storm before the concert concluded with a tremendously touching take on the final hymn of thanksgiving in which Takacs-Nagy looked exultant.
Really, SPCO: You must have him back.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
With: Conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy and clarinetist Sang Yoon Kim.
What: Works by Claude Debussy, Edvard Grieg and Beethoven.
When: 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat.
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $12-$50 (kids and students free); 651-291-1144 or thespco.org.
Note: Friday night's concert will be livestreamed online and in St. Paul's Rice Park, across from Ordway Center.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.