For the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the spring has been more "chamber," but the fall will be more "orchestra."
When the SPCO invites audiences back to St. Paul's Ordway Concert Hall in September, expect the full ensemble after a season devoted to online offerings of smaller-scale pieces for a handful of musicians. Such was the case with Saturday night's finale livestreamed from the Ordway, which will be repeated Thursday evening.
It featured five pieces, none requiring more than six players. Yet it was a fine example of how the orchestra customarily keeps one foot in the baroque or classical era, the other firmly in the present. There was some eminently enjoyable Beethoven and passionately played Felix Mendelssohn, but the program also featured two premieres and another 21st-century composition. And, as is usually the case with the SPCO, the musicianship was outstanding.
The premieres were the smallest-scale pieces on the program, but each asserted a very individualistic voice.
Who would expect that a duet for clarinet and bass could produce such a big sound and take listeners in so many interesting directions? Stylistic polymath Clarice Assad's "Jazz Montmartre" was a fine showcase for bassist Zachary Cohen — whether delivering resonantly plucked jazz lines or expressively bowing a melody — as well as clarinetist Sang Yoon Kim, whose solos darted and weaved between Cohen's lines.
Kim was featured in another premiere, Michi Wiancko's solo clarinet piece "Island in the Sky." Inspired by a mesa of that name in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, it was a piece full of cascading lines that seemingly echo, repeating as they fade from earshot. Kim made it a fascinating soliloquy.
Not all that was new was that new. Caroline Shaw's "Entr'acte" for string quartet is a curiously constructed 10-year-old piece that proved an involving opener. It features all sorts of unexpected sounds, such as bows brushing across strings to create something like unintelligible whispers or pizzicato pluck fests that almost careen into chaos. Concluding with a hypnotically strummed solo by cellist Joshua Koestenbaum, it was quite a unique musical adventure.
Beethoven's Sextet for Two Horns and Strings is too rarely heard. A relatively early work, it nevertheless offers a preview of coming attractions in its hints of emotional heft amid what is, at root, one of his most playful and fun-loving works. The SPCO's horns, James Ferree and Matthew Wilson, had a plethora of enjoyable exchanges, their lines ever interweaving or conversing, their rich, robust tones and interpretive flair a constant.
The evening's most romantic and dramatic music came in the finale, Mendelssohn's String Quintet No. 2. Violinist Eunice Kim was entrusted with most of the heavy lifting as a soloist, and she and her fellow SPCO members created touching tones on the work's back-to-back slow movements and a fiery five-part fugue on the high-voltage finale.
At intermission, it was announced that bassoonist Carole Mason Smith is retiring after 41 years with the SPCO. In addition to her fine playing, I'll always remember Smith as the SPCO musicians' strong and steady leader during the 2012-13 lockout and an eloquent spokesperson for their cause. She had a lot to do with shaping the orchestra into the excellent musician-led ensemble it's become.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • email@example.com
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
What: Works by Caroline Shaw, Clarice Assad, Beethoven, Michi Wiancko and Felix Mendelssohn.
When: Replays at 7 p.m. Thu. at thespco.org.