Some of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's most memorable concerts of the past two decades have come in the company of former artistic partners Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jeremy Denk. And I found a lot of the spirit of each in pianist Conrad Tao, who made his SPCO debut Friday morning.
He shares with violinist Kopatchinskaja a thirst for innovative programming. He suggested the orchestra build this weekend's concerts around two piano concertos from the late 1700s — by C.P.E. Bach and Mozart — and make them part of something like a 90-minute, intermission-less suite with stops in 1611, 1926 and 1970. It's the kind of novel presentation style and blend of sounds that Kopatchinskaja favored.
And for those mourning Denk's departure after eight seasons, how wonderful it was to once again hear some marvelous Mozart played by the SPCO and an imaginative, energetic and sensitive pianist. The 28-year-old from Urbana, Ill., not only brought out all the turbulent emotions of Mozart's 24th Piano Concerto, but emphasized the calm within the storm at key junctures. Similarly, his interpretation of C.P.E. Bach's Concerto in D was full of fleet, fiery passages and involving slow meditations.
Yet the concert began in a place of dark unease with the opening movement of Ruth Crawford Seeger's "Music for Small Orchestra." It's clear that 1926 America sounded quite different to Seeger than the carefree frivolity often portrayed by history. Hers is a fascinating voice, and it's sad (or infuriating) how the walls of gender bias have kept it from us.
Following it was Twin Cities composer Jonathan Posthuma's arrangement of an early 17th century motet by Carlo Gesualdo that had the same soul-cleansing feel as Giovanni Gabrieli's antiphonal brass choirs of similar vintage.
So bright and blazing was the C.P.E. Bach concerto's opening that it could have given a listener whiplash. Its opening movement was full of fast flourishes flawlessly delivered by Tao, the ensuing Andante an ideal fit for the program in showing how C.P.E. Bach planted stylistic seeds for the slow movements of Mozart's concertos. The minuet-like finale was so deliciously light that Tao seemed to levitate from his bench.
Then, an almost 200-year leap was lithely executed as Tao and SPCO violist Hyobi Sim teamed for Morton Feldman's "The Viola in My Life 3," an austere, haunting work.
Yet Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 was the main event here, and Tao and the SPCO provided ample evidence that it may be the composer's peak of writing for piano and orchestra. The SPCO sounded superb, and Tao masterfully summoned up Mozart's conflicted genius, an opening movement cadenza seeming to find his left hand running toward the darkness, his right toward the light. The concluding theme and variations were a fine showcase for Tao's versatility with varied moods and approaches.
It so inspired the audience that they rose virtually as one at its conclusion, despite there still being one more work on the program. After three bows, the pianist returned to the keys for the final movement of the Seeger piece, a chaotically careening scherzo that wrapped up a deeply satisfying concert.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
With: Pianist Conrad Tao
When and where: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul; 2 p.m. Sunday, Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 Fourth St. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $11-$50 (students free), available at 651-291-1144 or thespco.org
Note: Saturday's concert will be livestreamed for free in Rice Park, across the street from the Ordway (bring a chair or blanket), and at thespco.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.