Kahane leads St. Paul Chamber Orchestra toward more perfect union

By Joe Riina-Ferrie

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra put on a powerful performance before a nearly full Mandel Hall last Friday. Under Jeffrey Kahane’s artful conduction, the smaller ensemble—who took the stage first—played with the power of a full symphony orchestra. The monumental classicism of Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 in E flat and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A were offset well by the contemporary Orphée-Sérénade of William Bolcom, creating a diverse and engaging program. Overall, it was a night of solid musicianship, with Kahane proving himself equally talented as a piano soloist and as a conductor.

It was an excellent choice to open the concert with Bolcom’s Orphée-Sérénade. The fresh and modern but still lyrical and moving tones of Bolcom set an exciting atmosphere for the remainder of the concert. The smaller ensemble not only created an additional contrast with the rest of the program, but it lured the listener into a more intimate connection with the performance, one that remained when the full ensemble took the stage.

The switch from Bolcom to Mozart snapped the listener abruptly back in time to a completely different musical era. It was a welcome contrast; though the pieces had not much more in common than a piano solo and a heartfelt performance, they made an excellent pair. Listening to both in succession gave the audience a taste of the most moving sounds of each period and highlighted the timelessness of music as well as its adaptable nature.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 exemplifies the composer’s genius. The closely placed, delicate, and powerful phrases were sensitively performed by the orchestra. Conducting from the piano, Kahane led the group with his dynamic, exciting style, and in return, the orchestra’s enthusiastic treatment of the piece was mirrored and magnified by his virtuosic and energetic pianism. The sound of the piano blended flawlessly with that of the orchestra; the two voices responded to each other in a living dialogue.

The concert ended with the pure orchestral sound of Haydn’s Symphony No. 99. The most conventional of the three pieces, the energy of the ensemble and conductor lent the piece an intensity I have rarely heard in a work of Haydn. While I would not consider it the high point of the concert, the performance was as thoughtful and inspired as the other two pieces. In my opinion, however, the piece itself lacked the element of daring and innovation that prevailed in both the Mozart and the Bolcom.

Demonstrating the virtuosity and versatility of both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and its leader Jeffrey Kahane, the concert in Mandel Hall filled the listeners with respect for the performers’ musicianship. It was a privilege to witness the talent of a solo performer working in unison with the collective talent of a musical ensemble playing as a single, powerful instrument. The combination of genius in programmatic juxtaposition and an empathetic performance created an intense musical experience that moved the audience to give a well deserved standing ovation.