Pioneer Press Saint Paul, MN May 5, 2011
Among the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's artistic partners, Italian conductor Roberto Abbado is the one most fond of spending two or three weeks delving deeply into the repertoire of a particular composer. But his latest SPCO collaboration has a focus as broad as Russia is wide.
As at last week's concerts during an all-Russian fortnight, this weekend's program pairs the emotive romanticism of Peter Tchaikovsky with the sound of young Sergei Prokofiev finding his voice during the Soviet revolution. But between them came a powerful reality check, a work of such arresting urgency that one could pity Prokofiev for being entrusted with lightening the mood afterward.
The piece is Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C Minor, a 1960 work that sounded intensely personal in its expression of the composer's inner torment as performed by Abbado and the SPCO strings on Thursday night at Stillwater's Trinity Lutheran Church. It was a gripping performance that brought an ear-opening dose of immediacy to a collection of works inspired by looking backward.
For the forms of earlier eras were the basis for Tchaikovsky's "Mozartiana" suite and "Variations on a Rococo Theme." In each, the composer employs the time-tested structure of delivering a melodic line in a variety of moods and styles, but that sounds somewhat academic for something as expressive and exciting as the "Rococo Variations" sounded Thursday night. It's the closest thing that Tchaikovsky wrote to a cello concerto, and soloist Bion Tsang made a tour de force of the demanding work, a singing, screaming compendium of radically shifting moods, serving sweetness and aggression in equal measure.
Speaking of mood shifts, "Mozartiana" was an ideal showcase for the SPCO's ability to turn on a dime, especially during its final movement's 10 variations, when soloists and sections of the orchestra took impressive turns in the spotlight. Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony was similarly well executed, but its playfulness couldn't dispel the lingering shadows of the Shostakovich.
By Rob Hubbard