Fur coats and Christmas sweaters were much in evidence among attendees at a packed Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley on Thursday night as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of itinerant wunderkind James Gaffigan, turned in a typically polished performance. The highlight of the well-chosen program was Thomas Adés’s Violin Concerto Op. 24, Concentric Paths, performed with guest soloist Leila Josefowicz.
A suburban church seemed an incongruous venue to showcase a star of Josefowicz’s wattage—the 31-year-old has been playing with major orchestras since she was a teenager, and recently received a MacArthur “genius grant”—but the acoustics and sightlines at SOTV (as the church is identified on pens kept handy in the pews for check-writing) are excellent, and the gentle modernism of the 1984 building’s architecture complemented Adés’s accessible brand of musical modernism. The piece put my friend in mind of “a woman growing old surrounded by pieces of finery that are no longer fine,” but I liked Adés’s inventiveness and the combination of sonic daring and British reserve he shares with his late countryman Benjamin Britten. It was Josefowicz’s debut performance of the 2005 concerto; the piece is a good choice for an artist who’s never been shy about attacking the prickly modern repertoire. And attack it she does—she’s been criticized for displaying virtuoso zeal in place of interpretive refinement, but her New World vigor proved well-suited to Adés’s brisk concerto. Taking the altar—er, stage—with Gaffigan on Thursday, the Toronto native outlined the piece’s structure like a quarterback calling a play, and performed with her legs planted so firmly in stance that she probably could have taken a hit from Matt Birk without missing a note.
Preceding the Adés was Mozart’s Chaconne and Pas seul from Idomeneo, in a sparkling performance that Gaffigan almost danced through—at one point he cued the low strings with a finger-wagging, hip-thrusting gesture that my friend identified as a “give it to me” move. Gaffigan was a little more restrained in a similarly stellar performance of Webern’s arrangement of the Ricercare from Bach’s Musical Offering—I’m a sucker for those 20th-century Bach transcriptions—and a smooth but hardly revelatory performance of the fifth symphony by Schubert, who Gaffigan called his favorite composer.
If the venue change from the SPCO’s usual home at the Ordway didn’t do much to diversify the orchestra’s audience—it seemed that most of the twenty- and thirtysomething attendees were onstage performing—it made for a warm and intimate show. Typical of the evening’s low-key coziness was the fact that at the intermission, Josefowicz and Gaffigan wandered out into the foyer, conversing between themselves as they nonchalantly made their way through the cookie queue to the parish office.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.