It’s difficult to love a huge aggregate. But the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is small by orchestra standards: thirty-some versus over a hundred (I’m guessing) for the Minnesota Orchestra. Saturday night’s concert at the Ordway was for me a love fest. It came just after the board’s announcement of a much more lenient package for the orchestra–instead of keeping only a small core and bringing in “players for hire”; cutting salaries as low as $25,000/year, and reducing the number of concerts, most salaries would hover around $62,000. A full complement of musicians would be retained, and there’d be a satisfactory retirement package to encourage some long-timers to exit.
The past week has been fraught with sadness and tension. Could the board truly institute its draconian intention? Many of us cried out, NO NO NO. The opening concerts were a love fest of relief between players and audience: the flayers had been sent away. Our beloved players in their jewel of a hall would gather another year to challenge and delight us.
The challenge came first in two “neoclassical” pieces by Stravinsky. As I write this, I’m listening to that Russo-American’s 1920s ballet score “Pulcilnella,” created for the Dyagliev Paris ballet, with sets designed by Picasso, and the music based on Pergolesi and the Commedia dell’Arte masked traveling Italian troupes. If time travel could take me back to that first performance, I’d bring the SPCO players with me. Stravinsky in “Pulcinella” is a more lyrical, story-telling composer than in the two pieces the SPCO played last night: a flute, woodwind and brass “Octet” from 1922, with some of the charming quick tempo and mood changes and “hoots” that always make me smile. But lacking the expansive charm of “Pulcinella.” I liked better the other Stravinsky, a 1940s all string “Concerto in D.” It had more coherence which helped with the rather dry melodic business.
After the intermission came the piece de resistance–Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony–grand, complicated expression of the heroic spirit, intended originally to honor Napoleon. Surely this work was chosen way back in the spring, before all the wrangling about continuing the orchestra took place. But it was a completely fitting shout of joy, and weeping in suffering and relief (the second “Marcia funebra” movement). I had to close my eyes to fully take in the glorious playing–Beethoven’s fascinating shifts (sometimes almost like flying up stairs) from gloom to light, from plodding and slow to eager tripping, all gathered and consumed in the simplicity of a few dominating motifs.
The audience was (I’m guessing) to a person on their feet with applause. Then with my eyes open and full of tears, I looked at my beloved orchestra, the faces and figures I know almost like a family (though of course they don’t know me–that odd one-way relation of performer and listener). And I saw relieved tears in some of their eyes too. They honored their vigorous, talented, steadfast maestro Edo de Waart who has stood with them in the week’s public discussion. Thank you, indeed, from our hearts, with sadness for the initial, dismal way they were treated. And relief in hopes we may continue, full force and together, this exploration of excellent performing.