Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra closes Mandel Hall residency in style with Josefowicz

Mon May 02, 2011 at 12:48 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Violinist Leila Josefowicz performed with conductor Roberto Abbado and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Sunday at Mandel Hall.

After more than fifty active years the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has by now achieved the status of living national treasure. The musicians’ remarkable ability to assimilate to the style and personality of their various directors and their high standards of performance make any of their concerts an event.

Add to that the presence of a top-rung soloist and you have music-making of the highest order. This was the case Sunday afternoon in Hyde Park’s Mandel Hall where the greatly gifted Leila Josefowicz performed Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto in an all-Russian program conducted by Roberto Abbado.

The concert opened with the playful and spiky Comedians suite by Dmitri Kabalevsky. Abbado conducted with verve and attention to all the sonic hijinks of this infectious children’s piece.  The witty use of the xylophone and various other percussion instruments contributed to the fun of a light-hearted performance.

The Prokofiev concerto was executed by soloist and ensemble with admirable rapport. A fiendishly difficult handful for the violin and the orchestra, it requires the utmost in technique but also demands considerable emotional commitment. The artists provided plenty of both.

The pyrotechnics were for the most part flawlessly brought off and the soloist seemed at one with her partners throughout. The achingly emotive first theme was expressively handled and the rather dry sound of Mandel Hall seemed to fit the performance of the second movement’s quicksilver grotesqueries.

Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn for two violins and strings is a performance piece that needs to be seen to be fully experienced. But since the afternoon light was pouring in from the arched windows of the hall, the opening and closing sequences, intended to be played in complete darkness, didn’t quite come off. The musicians by default were forced to concentrate on the incongruous and witty music rather than the staging, which was just fine.

The piece, written in 1977, is a postmodern pastiche of styles and attitudes, with ample opportunity for the two soloists to glitter. Josefowicz and the equally virtuosic Steven Copes, the group’s concertmaster, played their parts admirably and the Alice-in-Wonderland sonic pile-up was brought off with great humor.

Tchaikovsky’s oft-heard Serenade for Strings was given a performance far from routine with Abbado’s energetic direction shaping a well-paced and dramatic whole. Tiny imprecisions showed that even these fine musicians are human after all, with this work seemingly receiving the least rehearsal time.

The concert marked the conclusion of the group’s six years of residency at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall where the musicians took part in a number of outreach and training programs as well as performances. They will be missed.

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