SPCO program propelled by contrast

03.10.11
Matthias Pintscher
The Pioneer Press

By Ron Hubbard

While watching Matthias Pintscher conduct the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Minneapolis' Temple Israel on Thursday night, I found myself thinking about Isaac Newton's third law of motion. You know, the one about every action having an equal and opposite reaction? In both his original compositions and his interpretations of others' work, Pintscher is devoted to emphasizing contrasts and conflict.

It's an intriguing approach, and it made for some interesting music making on Thursday. Lest you think that the orchestra was performing pieces rife with rage and intra-ensemble shouting matches, you should know that two of the classical repertoire's most sweet-spirited works were on the program: Maurice Ravel's lively "Le Tombeau de Couperin" and Beethoven's ebullient Eighth Symphony. Both sounded like festive folk dances in the hands of Pintscher and the SPCO, who gave each a lithe and joyous rendition, the conductor emphasizing quick shifts in volume level and tug of wars between sections of the orchestra.

But the centerpiece of the program most clearly stated Pintscher's approach. His 2009 work, "Songs from Solomon's Garden," is an adaptation of the "Song of Songs" (from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, depending upon your faith) that looks at love from many levels. Sung in Hebrew by bass-baritone Evan Hughes, it transformed from something melodious into a torrent of sound during which every instrument became percussion.

However, Pintscher was again determined to throw things into stark contrast, so the rattle and hum often quickly subsided to reveal whispers of nightmarish unease, with darting figures tossed back and forth between the players. While there was little tenderness in the music to match the text, it's a haunting soundscape that finds the composer releasing his inner John Cage. And Hughes sung it splendidly, although the orchestra sometimes surged over him like a spring flood.

The piece has an antiphonal framework, one section of the ensemble often echoing themes originating in another. That approach held through the concert-closing performance of Beethoven's Eighth, on which conductor Pintscher brought out how much of the symphony can sound like exclamations and replies, action and reaction. It was a thought-provoking take on a work that is too often presented in fluffy fashion.