Three sweet-sounding shows from Brooklyn Rider and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

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In the 20-car pile-up that is my daily life, I sometimes see a show—even a very good show—and just can’t wrangle the time to write about it as soon as I’d like. That’s been the case with three fine performances of classical music I’ve seen since August.

The first featured the string quartet Brooklyn Rider in a program of music by Philip Glass. To my ear, Glass’s string quartets are among his most profound, moving music. Perhaps it’s the fact that, as a pianist, he’s composing in a foreign land, but Glass’s quartets have a sense of balance and—for lack of a better word—humility that’s missing in some of his larger-scale compositions.

Glass’s string quartet repertoire is owned, fairly definitively, by the Kronos Quartet; their 1995 recording of his quartets is a stunner from beginning to end. Brooklyn Rider, though, have picked up the torch and developed a close relationship with Glass’s quartets old and new. Their approach to this material is softer and, in a sense, more dynamic than that taken by Kronos; this served them will in their performance of Glass’s Quartet No. 2 (“Company”), where they found depths unplumbed in the Kronos account. Their set-concluding performance of the third quartet, however—the gorgeous piece adapted from Glass’s score for the film Mishima—felt rushed and showy, whereas the Kronos players’ more measured account allows the music to breathe and achieve its full, slowly building but ultimately devastating, impact.

I could be wrong, but it’s hard to imagine that Glass has never met Wallace Shawn—the two men are members of the same generation, and both have spent their lives crossing genres and audiences among the New York intelligentsia. Shawn was in Minnesota last month to narrate Earl Kim’s 1983 composition Cornet, a setting of the (spoken) text of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1906 story The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke—a meditation on loyalty, love, and death that became popular during the Great War.

With his high, pinched voice, Shawn seems a more natural choice to be cast in the comic roles for which he’s become widely known—in films including The Princess Bride, Clueless, and the Toy Story trilogy—than to read an elegaic work of lyric prose. The diminutive artist is a powerful actor, though, and his performance captured the same sense of frustration and futility that he brought to the classic art-house film My Dinner with Andre. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Scott Yoo, acquited themselves characteristically well on that piece as well as Franz Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet (arranged for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler) and—especially—the young composer Anna Clyne’s shimmering Within Her Arms.

I next saw the SPCO just this past Sunday at the stunning Benson Great Hall at Bethel College. They had another superstar with them: the violinist Leila Josefowicz, who is superb in all corners of the solo violin repertoire but especially so in 20th century music, as she demonstrated with a searing performance in Berg’s Chamber Concerto (Op. 8)—for which she was joined by pianist Kirill Gerstein. Conductor Oliver Knussen deftly led the orchestra through his own Scriabin Settings as well as Frank Bridge’s There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook and Arnold Schoenberg’s Accompanying Music to a Film Scene.

The performance was only marred by the SPCO’s decision to preface the Berg with a long and didactic exhumation of the myriad musical tricks Berg played in composing his concerto. Given the difficulty of 12-tone music, those who weren’t already in the loop could hardly have gained much of a road map; it would have been better to leave those notes in the program. Further, for all Knussen’s tender care with the music, he demonstrated an annoying insistence that the players wait a seemingly interminable interval after the last note of each piece died before lowering their bows and allowing the audience to show our appreciation. I’m all for a sense of reverie, but there is a point at which reverie becomes awkwardness.

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