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Those SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra season finales

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra performed their season finale concerts on successive weekends this year, the SPCO going first on June 9-11 and the Minnesota Orchestra following on June 16-18. We were fortunate to see both, and they were different as night and day.

The SPCO, staying put for a change in the Ordway Concert Hall, played a mix that demonstrated their artistry and openness. First, Mendelssohn’s “Fair Melusina” Overture, based on a German fairy tale about a river spirit and her human lover. Then the world premiere of American composer Pierre Jalbert’s Violin Concerto, a modern work that included some pitch-bending and a thorny cadenza concertmaster Steven Copes appeared to breeze through.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted with joy and flair by Thomas Zehetmair. Where we would normally get a solemn Allegretto, he gave us one with a bounce to its step. No sadness here, folks, it’s the season finale! It added excitement to a work that became more thrilling as it powered toward the final notes, which brought everyone to their feet with wild applause.

This was Zehetmair’s final weekend as an SPCO artistic partner. We remembered something Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO’s artistic director, had said in conversation leading up to the concert: “There’s nothing that gets between Thomas and the music.”

The next weekend we went from the relatively intimate Concert Hall to Orchestra Hall, from an orchestra of some 34 musicians (for the Beethoven) to an orchestra of more than 100 musicians plus the 160-strong Minnesota Chorale – over 270 humans and many instruments. The stage had been extended to hold them all.

The Minnesota Orchestra ended 2016-17 in peak form and made us eager for its return.
The program included just two works: Haydn’s Concerto in D major for Keyboard and Orchestra, about 20 minutes long, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection,” just short of 90 minutes. The Haydn is a lively entertainment originally written for royalty; the Mahler is death and life everlasting and everything in between. How could the Haydn hold its own? Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin played it brilliantly, then returned with an encore: a little something he’d written for the most recent Van Cliburn competition, where Hamelin was a judge. It was a beast.

The first part of the concert was splendid. And then came the Mahler, so magnificently played that we spent most of the 90 minutes leaning forward or standing (we could do that where we were sitting, in a back row of a side balcony). It was almost like watching a grand theater piece, with musicians exiting and entering, soloists appearing (mezzo Sasha Cooke in glittery black, soprano Ruby Hughes in a sweep of crimson), and our mighty Minnesota Chorale at the back of the stage, waiting patiently through the first four movements (they don’t get to sing until the fifth), then entering, almost at a whisper, with “Rise again” sung in German. From there, it was a straight shot to Heaven, carried by glorious voices, brilliant brass and pealing bells. All led by Osmo Vänskä, pure energy on the podium, bringing out the best in everyone on the stage.

We’re still buzzing from both concerts. Both the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra ended 2016-17 in peak form and made us eager for their return. Back when both were locked out in labor disputes, some people were asking, “Do we really need two orchestras”? Two singular, remarkable orchestras, committed to their communities? We’re lucky to have them.

Pamela Espeland, Minnpost
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