Thomas Zehetmair might have been born to conduct Beethoven's Seventh Symphony: His wiry dynamism is perfectly suited to its teemingly bacchanalian energies.
The Seventh was the Austrian violinist-conductor's choice to drop the curtain on his seven years as an artistic partner at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and on the orchestra's 2016-17 season.
As auf Wiedersehens go, it was a generally blistering experience. Amid the furious drive of Beethoven's pulsing rhythms, though, there was also an abundance of subtlety and telling nuance.
Zehetmair's opening movement, for instance, was relatively measured in tempo. Wisely so — in this of all Beethoven's symphonies there is a danger of flicking on the afterburners early, leaving no gas in the tank for the finale.
Throughout this Seventh, myriad microdynamic details caught the ear without stalling the relentless onward push of Beethoven's music.
Cellos and violas parsed the sober opening statement of the Allegretto with jolting clarity; the string fugue later in the movement had a rare elegance and delicacy; and in the boiling ferment of the finale, viola parts usually buried climbed articulately to the surface.
It was a riveting interpretation, strongly marshaled by Zehetmair and magnificently delivered by the SPCO players.
They brought a similar sharpness and artistry to a new Violin Concerto by American composer Pierre Jalbert, which had its world premiere at Friday morning's concert at the Ordway in St. Paul.
SPCO concertmaster Steven Copes played the jagged, hyperactive solo part with biting attack and a superfine sense of tuning.
The concerto's most arresting music came in the outer sections of the opening movement, where slithering piano glissandos and twinkling percussion meshed with wispy violins to conjure a magically airborne texture.
In between, and for much of the second movement, Jalbert's music was dominated by edgy, yakking rhythms that seemed to value a raw sense of propulsive dynamism over more expansive, lyrical material.
Copes' account of the truculent cadenza was masterly. Musically, though, it added little to what had gone before and fell short of being a culminating moment in the narrative of Jalbert's concerto.
The concert opened with Mendelssohn's Overture "The Fair Melusina." In Zehetmair's intense conception, this emerged as a mini-drama of contending emotions, the gently rippling figurations of the water sprite offsetting the bluntly priapic music of the knight she fatefully marries.
Who expected to hear the war between the sexes so graphically represented in Mendelssohn's music? That is the kind of special insight Thomas Zehetmair offers. It is good to know that though his period of artistic partnership at the SPCO is over, he already is scheduled for future appearances with the orchestra.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.