SPCO’s Innuendos

Dear Music Lovers, the Twin Cities now has two dueling orchestras back on stage. Well, not exactly dueling, but at least playing at each other across the river. I could not be happier, though I rarely cross the great divide to sit in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall–too abstract with its “cubes” staring down from the high, high ceiling. Plus I have to pay big bucks to park. Am I a philistine or not?

Last weekend’s SPCO concerts led by German pianist and now conductor Christian Zacharias both charmed and puzzled me. He, we’ve heard many happy times before. His fluid, long-armed piano technique is a marvel. You can almost tell he’ll be at ease as he walks on stage, loose-limbed like a Slinky, and almost smiling. He and three string players gave a fine rendition of a Mozart Piano quartet. The star was, no surprise, Zacharias. What fluidity, what measured dynamics, what precision and dew-drop clarity, what melt-in-your-mouth piano! Yet, the ensemble music itself came off rather dry. Maybe because three strings simply don’t have enough heft to balance the piano, or maybe because they are given little to do but support–both problems with the composition, not the rendition. Mozart, on his way to learning what makes truly exciting Mozart sound–which for me almost always includes the bell-tones and rasps of oboes, flutes, and woodwinds against the whoosh of strings. Think woodland sent skyward into celestial spheres.

What Zacharias did with Charles Ives “Unanswered Question” was not so happy. Yes, the trumpet asks the question offstage. Yes, the woodwinds and flutes/oboes become increasingly discordant in trying to answer. But what happened to the obbligato of camp-ground hymns which Ives gave the strings? They are supposed to play offstage too–all rather cloak and dagger–but Zacharias kept them visible, they just played so softly as to be no more than a whisper, or less kindly, mouse-scratch. No, no, no. The piece lacked tension–the questions must go against something sweet and soothing; otherwise, no innuendo, just bleats of uncertainty.

Finally the old SPCO panache asserted itself with a Haydn London symphony. The old master was making a big splash in a city crazed for music. Renown and beloved, he was feted and courted, kept almost too busy to compose. But clearly he did, at the peak of his prime. What wonderful soaring strings and sashaying flirtation from flutes/oboe/woodwinds. What I had expected of the Mozart was produced by his much older contemporary. Yes, Zacharias may have overdone the extreme dynamics. Yes, we could have used a bit more modulation and innuendo, but the music pulses with so much energy, the invention falls so in love with the orchestra’s capabilities, that no one can do wrong. I loved it for rollicking, for tootling, for crashing and deep diving. Congratulations to talented, hometown frolic led by imported but welcome to return, Christian Zacharias..

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