It took perhaps 30 seconds to adjust, last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, when the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra launched into the opening bars of Haydn's Overture to "Orfeo ed Euridice." In this hall where the National Symphony resides and the great orchestras of Berlin and Vienna, Philadelphia and Boston have played, the ensemble from Minnesota sounded small--as, of course, it is. It averages about 30 players, depending on the music--less than one-third of the number who normally occupy that stage for an orchestral program. But the effect was momentary. The players adjusted their dynamics and the audience adjusted its ears, and by the time the overture was into the second subject the sound had the rich transparency that belongs uniquely to a chamber orchestra.
The number was actually reduced to 24 for the second item, Stravinsky's bright, brash and bouncy Danses Concertantes, with a further gain in clarity--always essential for this composer and particularly in this work which features so much solo playing. As in Haydn's Symphony No. 104, which closed the program, it was good to hear the wind parts standing out in the texture of reduced strings, particularly since the performances also stood out.
One point made clear by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which ends its visit to the Concert Hall tonight, is that a chamber orchestra is different from a standard orchestra playing in reduced numbers for special repertoire. There is a feeling of rightness, of fullness, in this ensemble that you do not always get from a similar-sized group of players who are accustomed to working in a larger crowd. They adjust their individual dynamics immediately and automatically, even when playing in a large hall far from home. They act as a complete entity in the fullness of their power, and they take possession of the abundant repertoire for small orchestra with a special sense of proprietary right.
Their performance last night was beautiful, particularly in the more solemn moments of Haydn's last symphony but also in the burst of joyful energy that opens its finale and in the courtly minuet whose beauty is enhanced by its carefully calculated moments of silence.
Pinchas Zukerman conducted carefully balanced interpretations and also soloed exquisitely in Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor. The slow movement of this work was particularly enjoyable, with exactly the right measure of warmth in the solo.