Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, February 26, 2010

Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra / Paul Goodwin
Ordway Center, Saint Paul MN, February 26, 2010

HENRY PURCELL: Suite from King Arthur or The British Worthy, Z.628
BENJAMIN BRITTEN:  Suite on English Folk tunes, A Time There Was…, op.90
WILLIAM BOYCE:  Symphony No. 5 in D, op. 2d
ARCANGELO CORELLI:  Concerto Grosso in F, op 6. no. 2

SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT: Fantasia concertante on the Theme of Corelli for Strings
SIR EDWARD ELGAR:  Nursery Suite

The British conductor Paul Goodwin was in town to lead the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in a nicely-programmed set of English music spanning three centuries that was thoroughly enjoyable, except one coughing spell and one nebulous, murky, post-modern bender.

The Purcell started off a bit jaunty and occasionally disconnected, but emerged with the musical and rhythmic charm we’ve become used to hearing from his music, and was a fine way–stylistically and musically–to open this concert.

It’s hard to say whether Benjamin Britten’s A Time There Was… or William Boyce’s fifth symphony was the highlight of the evening; both were beautifully played by the SPCO.  Britten’s ‘Bitter Withy’ movement is a lovely mix of old-world themes and modern orchestration, and the “Hunt The Squirrel” rings true with some vivid color and pacing.  ‘Lord Melbourne’ represents Britten in an elegaic and gorgeous British setting, although the later sections gather a more austere mood.  Sadly, just as Goodwin was gently threading the orchestra to the breathtaking conclusion, one concert-goer ruined it not only with a coughing spell, but noisily climbed out of her chair, saying “sorry, sorry…”  It’s tough attending concerts in Minnesota in January because too many people don’t know when they are so sick that they should just stay home.  Having said that, I’ll buy this work on CD, not only to avoid hearing coughing spells but also because the Britten was so flat-out enjoyable that it made me want to drop everything, go home and pick up my own cello for a couple of hours.

The William Boyce symphony was also a gem; the scoring reflects the influence of the more-dominant George Friedrich Handel, who lived in England at the same time, but in Boyce’s own voice a more authentic British flavor underpins the orchestration.  Goodwin coaxed some excellent dynamics from the orchestra, particularly at the end of the first movement.

The opening movement of the short, F major Corelli concerto grosso was nothing short of lovely, and the second movement was quite sublime.  The final movement was missing a little bit of the magic but was nonetheless nicely led by Goodwin and helpfully served as a preview of the Tippett fantasia that followed.

In his Fantasia concertante, the late Sir Michael Tippett not only blurred the supporting orchestration with the obstreperous post-modern material we’ve become used to enduring, but also placed a tall order on the separate sections of celli and bassist Christopher Brown with some rather demanding passages.  These jarring sections contain skewed harmonics and poly-rhythmic structure that must be played cleanly — and the SPCO did, particularly the violins, who were called upon to keep the rhythm that helped keep the audience from otherwise being totally lost.  Some distinctly English-flavored passages emerged, harmonically modern but rhythmically discernible.  Unfortunately, Corelli’s motif is mostly lost here as Tippett essentially used it as a convenient platform on which he fabricated the fantasia.  There are a few precious moments in which the Baroque flavor emerges, with some 20th century English romanticism clearly embedded, but Tippett consumes most of the time leading us into some sort of musically drug-addled haze, bringing listeners back to Corelli’s flavor only in the very end.

In the Elgar the SPCO, under Goodwin’s excellent conducting, did quite a skillful job taking us from one mood to another in the opening ‘Aubade.’  And unlike Tippett, Elgar charms us with palpable waves and ripples of dynamic changes, even giving us some con sordini (playing with muted strings) in places.  In the Aubede’s closing chord, Goodwin thankfully let the SPCO’s closing pizzicato G major chord ring and decay purely and naturally.  The next movement is a busy one, colored by some extra percussion and flavorful horns, giving a short-but-pleasant musical outburst.  The ‘Sad Doll’ and ‘Merry Doll’ movements are pretty much as advertised, with the final movement punctuated with some demanding (but not overwhelming) bass drum, concert cymbals, snare drum, and xylophone — not exactly staples of chamber music, but well-written by Elgar and well-played on this evening by the SPCO.

It is possible that the Elgar Nursery Suite would have been good material for the children’s concert the SPCO performed back on Saturday morning, February 13.  And in the program notes, the orchestra admits that the program necessarily had to bypass a few other composers (Vaughan Williams especially) due to time constraints, but they clearly made their point on this evening that, Tippett’s crepuscular composition notwithstanding, a tremendous amount of British music more than 300 years across is wonderfully accessible and full of thickly-tinged, but not stuffy, essence.


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