ST. PAUL — While the world has many splendid opera houses and orchestra halls, performance spaces ideally suited to chamber orchestras of, say, 30 to 35 players, are rarer. These ensembles are like hybrids between chamber groups and full orchestras. What’s needed is a hall that allows clarity and detail in the playing to come through while providing orchestral resonance and bloom.
The impressive St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, currently in its 56th season, probably the leading ensemble of its kind in America, has never had such a home. Now it does. On Thursday the orchestra presented a gala program here to celebrate its new Concert Hall, an inviting, acoustically ideal, 1,100-seat auditorium here at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.
Before a sold-out audience on Friday night (the second performance of the program), the orchestra gave inspired accounts of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” the premiere of George Tsontakis’s “Coraggio” for String Orchestra, and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, all without a conductor. You could sense the excitement of the musicians over their new home, especially during the Beethoven, as the players leaned forward in their seats, listening to one another intently. Inner voices and solo lines came through beautifully. Yet the overall sound had symphonic depth and, during big climaxes, plenty of heft.
After the Ordway Center opened in 1985, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played most of its concerts in the complex’s Ordway Music Theater, a 1,900-seat proscenium auditorium that is home to the Minnesota Opera but was problematic for a chamber orchestra.
Discussions about creating a designated hall for the orchestra began some 10 years ago. The first idea was to renovate the Ordway Music Theater. Instead, the center turned to an underused component of the complex, the McKnight Theater, a 315-seat black-box space. The architect Tim Carl, of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, and the acoustician Paul Scarbrough devised a plan to turn the theater into a fitting chamber orchestra hall. The existing footprint of the space was nearly doubled. To prevent sound from being sucked up into the high ceiling, it is covered with wavy panels of warm wood dowels. There are rows of seats behind the stage, for a chorus or for concertgoers, which fosters intimacy between the audience and the musicians.
This $42 million project comes at a crucial time and should help the orchestra and its supporters move past the troubles of recent years.
The classical music scene in the Twin Cities was rocked by bitter labor negotiations at the Minnesota Orchestra, which resulted in a long, debilitating lockout of the players by the administration that ended in early 2014. That story overshadowed similar strife at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which had a lockout lasting six months, ending in the spring of 2013. There was turnover among the musicians during the lockout and the roster now includes some younger, eager new players.
From the sound of the orchestra during Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, it seemed that the musicians have already adjusted to the new hall and its acoustics. During the sprightly, slyly decorous Allegro movement, they were able to nudge offbeat accents and sudden fortissimo chords without any sense of pushing. In the bustling finale, there was striking clarity to crisscrossing lines and spiky harmonies. I have seldom heard this familiar Neo-Classical score sound so multilayered and contemporary.
The Ives was added to the program, as Kyu-Young Kim, the orchestra’s principal second violin, explained to the audience, because the piece can demonstrate a hall’s acoustics. The strings, placed onstage, played the subdued diatonic chords and scale patterns that provide the aural foundation of the music. From high in the second balcony a solo trumpet posed the cosmic question, while from behind the porous backstage wall woodwinds intruded with jarring Ivesian outbursts. In his remarks, Mr. Kim also paid tribute to the construction workers who were, he said, true partners in this endeavor. In the lobby it was moving to see photos of some of these workers, holding hammers and drills, their instruments, interspersed with photos of musicians.
The Tsontakis, though a premiere, was not completely new. “Coraggio” is a fresh arrangement of a movement from that composer’s 30-year-old String Quartet No. 3. The music shifts between passages of slippery, out-of-focus tonal harmonies and episodes of rustic dance, like tart, fractured fiddle-faddle. It’s an appealing piece and was vibrantly played. But in this context it seemed more conventional than the Ives.
The concertmaster Steven Copes was the de-facto leader of the “Eroica” Symphony performance. For a decade now the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has done without a music director and instead collaborates with shifting artistic partners. The musicians give many performances without a conductor, depending on the program.
If there was occasionally a passage in the Beethoven where coordination among the players was a little imprecise, the trade-off was music-making of in-the-moment brio. Details that seldom stand out were vividly audible here, especially in the orchestra’s somber, organic account of the great slow movement, the funeral march.
The final ovation was enormous. In a way, the audience may have been applauding itself as well for supporting this orchestra through some bad times and making this new home possible.
A music review on Monday about the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, at its new Concert Hall at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, referred incorrectly to the instruments that were heard from behind the backstage wall in Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” They were woodwinds, not brass and woodwinds.
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