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Is Richard Goode "the greatest American pianist"? St. Paul Chamber Orchestra violinist and artistic director Kyu-Young Kim thinks so, and introduced him as such at Thursday's first of three concerts featuring the master interpreter of 18th- and 19th-century repertoire.

And it was hard to argue to the contrary by evening's end. While soloing on two Mozart piano concertos, the Bronx-born 80-year-old took listeners on the kind of probing exploration of a composer's inner world that few interpreters accomplish. But even calling him a soloist sounds inaccurate, for Goode is above all a collaborator, merely the leader of an expedition that values the contributions of each fellow traveler.

That made for a concert at which the musicians of the SPCO shone almost as brightly as the esteemed pianist at center stage. Each of the Mozart piano concertos of the mid-1780s is a splendid orchestral showcase, especially for the woodwinds that often engage the piano in conversation, be it agreement or argument. And the veteran chamber musician Goode seemed intent upon intimacy, the concertos feeling more like a cooperative venture than a star turn.

Before all that marvelous Mozart was "Lila," a fascinating, high-energy work from 2023 by Korean American composer Texu Kim. Inspired by shamanistic traditions from his native country, "Lila" is a very percussive piece that only employs two percussionists. The rest is provided by the clapping and stomping of the orchestra's musicians, who frequently burst into something like a seated folk dance.

The work asks for a lot of what's called "extended technique," which basically means making your instrument sound considerably different than customary. But it never loses its musicality, making for a brief and captivating trip.

When Goode joined the orchestra for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18, the overarching first impression was that this man has an impeccable touch. He caressed the keys lovingly throughout the playful first movement, tender trills giving way to short bursts of glee, capped by a cadenza that deepened the drama with Beethoven-esque forcefulness.

Then a subtle sense of grief swept in during the slow movement, Goode conveying a tone of troubled restraint until the woodwinds burst forth with the anguish he'd been masking. Yet a dance of delight returned in the finale, a jig-like gambol with a stormy cadenza that nevertheless never lost its fun feel.

After intermission, Goode returned for Mozart's 23rd concerto, again impressing with his fluidity on the keys, offering a blend of speed and gentleness rarely encountered. But the most memorable minutes of the night were those spent in that concerto's Adagio. Goode's opening solo was permeated with sadness and resignation, his sorrow echoed by the soaring clarinet solos of Sang Yoon Kim.

But Goode, the SPCO and Mozart sent the audience smiling into the summery May night with a finale that bounced as buoyantly as anything I've heard all season. "The greatest American pianist"? Perhaps, at least when it comes to interpreting Mozart. And it helps to have an orchestra that plays that composer's music as expertly as the SPCO. Here's hoping that this partnership will be cultivated in coming seasons.

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

With: Pianist Richard Goode and conductor Chia-Hsuan Lin

What: Works by Texu Kim and Mozart

When: 11 a.m. Fri., 7 p.m. Sat.

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

Tickets: $12-$55, students and children free, available at 651-291-1144 or

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at