Biss, SPCO offer an inspiring two-concerto night

Matthias Pintscher, Jonathan Biss
Pioneer Press

When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra asked five composers to each write a new piano concerto and take for inspiration one of the five that Beethoven wrote, the composers were pretty much at liberty to be “inspired” in any way they saw fit. The new concertos could borrow the structure of one of Beethoven’s concertos, some of the themes, the mood, the instrumentation, whatever. Or perhaps they could just utter “Beethoven” after they’ve finished writing it, like someone whispers “vermouth” over the driest of martinis.

Pianist Jonathan Biss and the SPCO are presenting one of these new concertos each season for five years, and they reach the halfway point this weekend. Having already premiered new concertos by American composer Timo Andres and England’s Sally Beamish, they turn to Italy’s Salvatore Sciarrino this weekend for a new concerto called “Il sogno di Stradella,” ostensibly inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which concludes the program, Biss soloing on both.

While Sciarrino can be described as “avant-garde,” he’s not afraid to tap into older source material. For example, his 1985 violin concerto, “Allegoria della notte,” is something of a deconstructionist take on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. But “Il sogno di Stradella” is actually a quite lyrical and lovely work, albeit one that places its romantic notions against a sometimes dissonant backdrop of breathy hisses and urgent whispers. On Thursday evening, the piece received its world premiere from Biss, conductor Matthias Pintscher and the SPCO at Boe Memorial Chapel on the campus of Northfield’s St. Olaf College, and it will be repeated in St. Paul this weekend. The concerto is a fascinating mix of beauty and noise, both sweet and challenging.

It’s the centerpiece of a program that opens with Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 and closes with Biss playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. While the latter proved ample reward for anyone who holds modernism at arm’s length, the Sciarrino concerto made an even stronger impression. And the Schoenberg proved a typically fine SPCO interpretation, a complex confluence of battling themes making perfect sense in the skilled hands of Pintscher and the orchestra, who filled it with dark drama.

As for the Sciarrino, it often sounds as if you’re walking down a hallway, with interesting sounds emanating from behind each door you pass. Long notes waver and become shrill as Biss weaves a waltz above them, baroque-era counterpoint dictating the rules of engagement between pianist and orchestra. It’s a very intriguing work, and Biss and the SPCO showed it to have a sound world all its own, one that borrows from such natural forces as wind and birdsong.

Its inspiration, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, might be the most intimate and emotionally affecting among his five. And Biss, Pintscher and the SPCO seemed determined not to give short shrift to all it can do to raise heart rates and tug heart strings. Biss employed an impressively gentle touch, most notably when transitioning in and out of Beethoven’s fist-shaking fury. It was an interpretation full of dynamic contrast, and conductor Pintscher exuded charisma and pure joy at the playing of it.
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