Zehetmair brings austere audacity to Viennese program with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

Sat Apr 17, 2010 at 3:16 pm

By Bryant Manning

Thomas Zehetmair performed as soloist and conducted the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Friday night at Mandel Hall

Relatively little known in the United States, Thomas Zehetmair has been a true musical force throughout Europe on violin, recordings and, now, the podium. Much of his success is owed to his far-reaching, if unpredictable musical acumen: He calls himself a “complete Schubert addict,” which makes his authority on contemporary music all the more impressive. Sir Simon Rattle has even touted him as the “only violinist today able to encompass every style of playing.”

For his Chicago conducting debut Friday night at Mandel Hall with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Austrian lived up to his transatlantic legend in an engagingly elastic program that showcased Viennese-heavy fare from Beethoven to Krenek. He began the evening in dual roles as conductor and soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

It’s hard to describe his performance in this warhorse as anything other than pure wizardry. The wild cadenzas were written by the composer for a piano version, but were later transcribed by the violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan; here Zehetmair’s engrossing takes on these tangential musical moments were so wondrously flamboyant that they were at times audacious. Granted, he does not produce a pretty and velvety tone but he is still a highly persuasive communicator through the steely edge of his sound. The support of the orchestra was magnificent, which brought a real thrust and authority to this defiant score.

It was a complementary gesture to program Ernst Krenek’s Symphonic Elegy for Strings, op. 105, which was written by the exiled composer while he was teaching in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beforehand Zehetmair briefly described the “quiet grief” in this music but the string writing is so jaunty that it seldom materializes as a fully elegiac score.

Krenek dedicated his 1946 Elegy to Webern, who occupied the third slot in this tightly conceived program. His 12-tone Symphony, Op. 21 is music that recalls the singing vernacular of the Krenek, but here is chopped up finely to pieces and distributed more liberally throughout the orchestra. While pointillistic by nature, this performance felt coldly analytical instead of painterly and seductive.

The night ended melodiously with a lightly etched account of the two-movement Schubert Unfinished Symphony (No. 8). Though far from bloodless, Zehetmair catered to a certain Viennese gentility instead of playing up the adversarial currents that run through this music.

He may not begin his official stint as an artistic partner with the SPCO until next year, but Zehetmair’s veritable presence must already be felt in the Twin Cities.

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One Response to “Zehetmair brings austere audacity to Viennese program with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra”

  1. Posted Apr 17, 2010 at 7:51 pm by Marika Zoll

    it was a marvelous concert!

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