Review: SPCO finds bliss with Biss, Beamish and Beethoven

Jonathan Biss
St. Paul Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

Sometimes a concerto can seem like a sandwich: The meat is in the middle. Yes, all three movements of such works for soloist and orchestra can have something important to say, but I often come away from them feeling as if the first movement was designed to show off the soloist’s skills and the finale was intended to please the listeners, but in that slow center could be found the composer’s most heartfelt and intimate expressions.

This weekend’s St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts feature two fascinating journeys along that arc. Pianist Jonathan Biss and the SPCO are in the second season of a five-year commissioning project, in which a different composer each season is asked to draw inspiration from one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos and write one of their own to be premiered alongside it. At Friday’s midday concert at St. Paul’s Ordway Concert Hall, Biss and the orchestra debuted the latest from English composer Sally Beamish, her Piano Concerto No. 3, “City Stanzas,” before launching into Beethoven’s First Concerto.

Biss played both exceptionally well, and, judging from the lusty standing ovation it inspired, I imagine that most came away talking about the Beethoven. But I was fascinated by the Beamish concerto, a work inspired by the community, disconnection and chaos that are part of life in a city. Beamish’s way of summoning up anxiety is reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev at his most discomfiting, and there was plenty of that to be found here, especially in the outer movements. But the center created the strongest impact.

Read the full review here.