A longtime selling point for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has been that it usually performs music written for an ensemble of approximately its size. For example, the symphonies of Mozart and Joseph Haydn were generally premiered by groups of two to three dozen musicians or so, which fits quite well with the SPCO's numbers, not to mention its skill with that repertoire.
But Mozart and Haydn sometimes went big, such as when commissioned by one of those enormous Parisian orchestras of their era. Each was asked to do so, Mozart with his 31st Symphony (since nicknamed the "Paris") and Haydn with a collection of six Paris Symphonies.
So what happens when a relatively small group like the SPCO takes on works written for much larger forces?
Judging from Thursday evening's concert at St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall, some very fine things indeed. Under the direction of artistic partner Jonathan Cohen, it was a performance overflowing with delight and marvelous musicianship. This orchestra typically plays Mozart and Haydn quite well, yet the standout turned out to be the centerpiece, when Cohen and the orchestra completed this trio of works premiered in Paris with opera music from baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.
While there were only 31 musicians onstage for Mozart's 31st Symphony, they sounded like many more. That worked for an opening movement full of broad, bright flourishes and a fast, fortissimo-laden finale, but I wished for a softer, more delicate touch on the symphony's lovely slow movement.
While both the Mozart and Haydn symphonies might be familiar to even a casual classical fan, that certainly isn't the case with the collection of excerpts from Rameau operas that Cohen picked out for the occasion. While the symphonies were more about showcasing the entire orchestra, the Rameau pieces provided star turns for multiple musicians within the group.
Foremost among them were the bassoons. One of the SPCO's newest members, principal bassoonist Andrew Brady, shone throughout the Rameau works, combining with the Minnesota Orchestra's J. Christopher Marshall for some intricately fast lines on the overture from "Hippolyte and Aricie" and some sonorous fanfares on the Chaconne from "Naïs" that were brassy enough to have me wondering if they'd hidden some French horns somewhere in the hall. And flutists Julia Bogorad-Kogan and Alicia McQuerrey soared above the orchestra beautifully on a slice of "The Temple of Glory."
So this was a night on which the Frenchman outshone the Austrian visitors, although one couldn't have asked for a more meticulously crafted and stormy interpretation of Haydn's 85th Symphony, nicknamed "La Reine" ("The Queen") because Marie Antoinette liked it so much. Even with their numbers reduced to 24, the SPCO still produced a big sound, and it presented more opportunities for captivating solos from Bogorad-Kogan and Brady.
Currently in his first season as artistic director of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society (America's oldest performing arts organization), Cohen proved a very entertaining conductor to watch, focusing more upon physically conveying the desired mood than concentrating on cues and rhythms. He and the SPCO musicians seem to understand one another well, and their chemistry came through in this consistently enjoyable program.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
With: Conductor and harpsichordist Jonathan Cohen.
What: Works by Mozart, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Joseph Haydn.
When and where: 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul; 3 p.m. Sun., St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, 900 Stillwater Road, Mahtomedi.
Tickets: $11-$50, available at 651-291-1144 or thespco.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.