This concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was a Beethoven-centric affair, with two famous works being presented alongside a new composition inspired by one of the composer's famous piano concertos.

Jonathan Biss and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra © The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Jonathan Biss and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
© The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

The program opened with the Coriolan overture. The SPCO was true to the tragic and heroic spirit of the music – the director-less ensemble attacking the opening chords with drama and authority. The poignantly lyrical theme that serves as a sort-of antidote to the dramatic thrusts of the music was also masterfully conveyed. What was particularly remarkable about this SPCO performance was its HIP-like interpretation – yet without sacrificing any of the import we tend to associate with the “big orchestra” approach, which is the way this music is so often presented. Also noteworthy was the absolute precision of the pizzicato notes that end the piece, coming off way better than in concert performances led by a conductor.

The other Beethoven work on the program was the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, featuring Jonathan Biss as soloist. Biss' artistry reminds me of those who take a thoughtful – some might say cerebral – approach to these concertos: among pianists I have seen who fall into this group are Nelson Freire and Norman Krieger. Biss' performance lived up to that reputation in a piece that could be considered Beethoven's first truly mature composition. In the Allegro con brio movement, the two opening themes by the orchestra gave us a sense of anticipation of what was to come. Throughout the development, the interplay between pianist and orchestra was deftly handled, with ornamental filigrees and arpeggios adding more touches of magic to the movement. The cadenza was expressively played, and the way the orchestra initiated the coda was one of the most effective transitions I have ever heard in this piece.

The middle Largo movement was even more impressive. Biss set a contemplative mood from the very first solo bars. Also noteworthy was the delicate dialogue between the piano and some really incredible bassoon and flute playing, with pizzicati strings adding to the color.

Jonathan Biss and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra © The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Jonathan Biss and The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
© The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra

The third movement Rondo brings us round to sunny temperaments, even if the key remains minor during most of the movement's duration. The tempo was a tad faster than is typical, yet resulting in a reading that came across as natural and effortless rather than rushed – all while capturing the good spirits inherent in the score. In sum, this was a finely wrought performance of the Third Concerto, boasting tight ensemble, great musicality and just the right balance between Classical-era “impulse” and Romantic-era “heart”.

Sandwiched between the two Beethoven works was a newly created composition: a piano concerto by the young American composer Caroline Shaw. Subtitled Watermark, the piece was composed last year on a co-commission from the SPCO and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; this was the work's Midwest premiere. The piece is part of a larger project spearheaded by Biss and the SPCO to commission new compositions that are paired with Beethoven's piano concerti. Shaw has stated that she employed the opening notes of the Beethoven Third as the building block – or "watermark" if you will – for her own piano concerto. She refers to other Beethoven Third musical phrases that pop up throughout her concerto as “hidden Easter eggs”, some obvious and others far more subtle.

Concerning the finished product, the question is: Are we in the early 19th century or the 21st? The answer seems to be “both”. In each of the three movements of Shaw's concerto there are direct musical quotations from Beethoven's Third, surrounded by major doses of static, minimalist writing along with repetitive phrases that don't appear to be heading anywhere particularly special. If anything, the piece serves to demonstrate that there is very little anyone can do to improve upon Beethoven, or even to create Beethoven-inspired music that will sound particularly compelling.

Pianist Biss and the SPCO musicians led by guest conductor Mischa Santora pulled out all the stops in an effort to deliver as fine a performance of the Concerto as could be. It's just unfortunate that the musical material they were given suffered from a paucity of substance and memorability. This isn't to contend that Shaw's music doesn't have strong potential. Her creative style is based on tonality and possesses many agreeable qualities. Up to now she has been best-known for her choral compositions, and it may be that we're seeing a young talent whose orchestral style is still evolving. With time and seasoning, there's no reason not to anticipate her music being embraced by future audiences.

****1