Thanks to the electrifying solo efforts of percussionist Evelyn Glennie, the Tuesday night debut of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Meyerhoff Hall will go down as one of the highlights of this young season.
Ms. Glennie played in three of the five works on the program. From the second she appeared on stage the orchestra and the audience were captivated by her stellar personality -- even before she played one note. She started her part of the program with her own transcription of Vivaldi's "Concerto in C Major for Vibraphone," and the phrasing and tone coloration was simply magical. The slow movement would have made any virtuoso recorder player jealous with envy.
This listener couldn't help wonder how much Leopold Stokowski would have loved working with this marvelous musician. This is not to say the orchestral support was not equal to Ms. Glennie's solo efforts. Conductor Hugh Wolff and his players gave committed and sensitive support throughout.
The evening began with an engaging Suite from "Pulcinella" by Igor Stravinsky. The strings were stunning and the solo efforts of oboist Linda Strommen were elegant. The rest of the winds were generally fine.
The central offering from Ms. Glennie was a riveting "Concerto for Marimba and Strings" by Akira Miyoshi. This work is a thorny maze for the players, and the first hearing may be challenging to listeners. Ms. Glennie gave a masterly account that pulled the listener into the depths of this grim but wonderful work.
The first half of the evening concluded with "Winter" from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." This one didn't have the nuance or color heard in the earlier Vivaldi, although the florid solo passages were impressive.
The Mendelssohn "Italian" Symphony, which comprised the second half of the program, was a real let-down. This listener is not convinced this score should be played by an orchestra with fewer than 40 players. Conductor Wolff kept things moving along so well that it robbed the music of most of its charm. The slow movement just had nothing to say. The lovely third movement was limp; and the finale was fast and accurate but simply too light-weight.
The real tragedy of the evening, however, was the fact that the audience -- while enthusiastic -- was simply too small for an ensemble and soloist of this caliber. The first four works of this program were world-class performances. Yet, sadly, the Meyerhoff was only about half full.