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Review: SPCO's 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' takes audience on a satisfying journey

05.19.11
Shai Wosner
Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

One of composer John Adams' most popular pieces is called "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." And that's what this weekend's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program feels like. So varied in mood, style and emotion are the works that you might feel as if you've been launched, orbited and landed safely home by the end of the evening.

If you seek to be soothed, there's a lovely Nocturne for String Orchestra by Antonin Dvorak that sounds like romanticism distilled to its calmest essence. If it's adventure you seek, Adams is waiting with one of his latest, "Son of Chamber Symphony," crashing and careening between modern anxieties. And if you want to explore what Beethoven had to say about the emotions at war within all of us, pianist Shai Wosner and the SPCO will engage you in an interpretation of the composer's Fourth Piano Concerto that is all about finding peace amid conflict.

There aren't many ensembles that can do all of that well, but the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is one of them, as it demonstrated at Apple Valley's Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church on Thursday night. Under the spirited leadership of guest conductor Joana Carneiro, the SPCO brought inventive ideas to each of the surprisingly complementary works.

Adams showed that he hasn't mellowed much since his late-'80s SPCO tenure. "Son of Chamber Symphony" is just as complex and frenetic as anything he created back then, albeit a tad more prone to contemplation. It's a tremendously challenging piece for its 15 musicians, but they handled its mix of inconsistent rhythms and collapsible themes impressively.

Then Wosner and the orchestra offered a version of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto that was disarmingly intimate. The pianist portrayed the composer as a divided soul, prone to whispers one moment, rumbles of thunder the next, outrage and calm acceptance squeezed beside one another. And Carneiro and the orchestra were simpatico partners in this high-contrast interpretation, bringing Beethoven's big issues down to human scale as only a small orchestra can do.