As if a storm of COVID cases weren't enough, the snow that hit the Twin Cities kept many St. Paul Chamber Orchestra habitués firmly ensconced at home Friday. The audience for the opening of this weekend's SPCO program was the smallest I've seen in Ordway Concert Hall since it debuted in 2015.
It's a shame that more patrons weren't able to experience the artistry of Xavier Foley. Not only is Foley a virtuosic bassist capable of making you fall in love with the sound of his instrument, but he's also a composer. At 27, he's known for creating pieces in which his instrument plays a starring role.
On Friday night, he brought an emotionally eloquent work inspired by the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing in North America. A double concerto for violin, bass and strings, "For Justice and Peace" evokes mourning, menace, striving and struggle. Although the shortest piece on the program, it packs the most power.
And that's saying something, for Beethoven's popular "Kreutzer" Violin Sonata is being presented in an arrangement for violin and strings that outshines the composer's original violin-piano duet in expressiveness and emotional impact. Add another showcase for Foley's bass prowess — and the skills of SPCO violinist Eunice Kim — and you have an exceptionally well-played program that demands to be heard.
The orchestra led with its lightest offering of the evening, the Gran Duo Concertante of Italian romantic Giovanni Bottesini. Friday's performance quickly established Foley as a masterful soloist, but Kim matched him in interpretive fire. Originally written as a duet for two basses, the work's most popular incarnation is the arrangement for violin and bass on this weekend's concerts.
Kim and Foley are frequent collaborators who've established a chemistry that felt equal parts camaraderie and one-upmanship. Whenever it seemed that Kim's fleet flights up and down the fingerboard couldn't possibly be duplicated on a bass, Foley would demonstrate that they could. His high harmonics were brilliantly crystalline, and Kim brought a dancing spirit to the folk-flavored finale.
Foley's "For Justice and Peace" opened in a decidedly contrasting mood, a tone of menace emerging beneath his fast, flowing bass lines. The composer demonstrated a marvelous gift for melody, and he gave most of them to himself, soaring into his instrument's upper range like an operatic tenor.
The work contains text rooted in the pleas of slaves petitioning courts for their freedom, sung strongly by members of the SPCO's violin and viola sections. Intermittently interrupted by the hammer of a judge's gavel, it's a powerful piece that left me admiring Foley's ability to conjure a mood and wondering if his music may find a place in film.
Richard Tognetti's arrangement of Beethoven's "Kreutzer" demonstrated what 17 string players can do that a piano cannot. It proved a splendid showcase for many of the musicians, particularly the violin soloist, SPCO Artistic Director Kyu-Young Kim. He brought lovely lyricism to the slowest sections and galloped gallantly through the finale, sending the small but enthusiastic audience smiling into the snowy night.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
What: Works by Giovanni Bottesini, Foley and Beethoven with bassist Xavier Foley and violinists Eunice Kim and Kyu-Young Kim
When: 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $12-$50, students and children free, 651-291-1144 or thespco.org
COVID protocol: Masks required along with proof of vaccination or negative test.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. email@example.com