SPCO Review: Steven Copes shines in Prokofiev, Haydn works

It’s a Steven Copes-filled weekend with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, as the concertmaster shines as a soloist taking on Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Joseph Haydn. The longtime member of the SPCO showed his intimate relationship with the music, a subtle showmanship and energetic alignment with his fellow musicians.
Friday’s performance at the Ordway Concert Hall marked a new chapter in the ongoing shifting landscape of the pandemic: masks were no longer required, and the venue no longer checks vaccine cards. With capacity capped at 50 percent, around a third of the audience seemed to not be wearing masks. The SPCO still requires masks at venues that are not the Ordway, which happens on Sunday when the performance takes place at Ted Mann Concert Hall.
Stephen Prutsman, an artistic partner with the orchestra from 2004-2007, was commissioned to arrange Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata #1, originally composed for violin and piano, as Sonata for Violin and Orchestra, No. 1, with the orchestra taking on the piano part. Speaking before the world premiere Friday evening, Prutsman said it took over a year to make the arrangement, but that work in no way compared to the genius of Prokofiev himself. He urged audience members to search up the original. “It’s really a glorious work,” he said.
Glorious indeed, and moody. Prokofiev began writing the piece two years after he returned to the Soviet Union after living abroad, in 1938. That was at the time Stalin embarked on his “great purge” where he killed hundreds of thousands of his enemies and sent millions more to forced labor camps. Prokofiev didn’t complete the sonata until after the end of World War II, in 1946. The work holds the weight of those events within it, and ghosts speak through it. Two of the movements were played at Prokofiev’s funeral, after the composer died the same day as Stalin.
Copes, wearing a ribbon with Ukraine’s colors, soars in his playing, and seems almost buoyed by the new arrangement played by his fellow musicians.
The piece begins with the bass players taking on the creeping low notes, which the violin responds to with ominous trills. It continues as a rich tapestry of sounds, with overlapping phrases. The music makes your breath stop with its lilting scales that sound like waves.
The second movement is harsher, as Copes strikes the strings in fury. Then in the third movement the xylophone creates a dreamlike sound. The fourth movement is a fierce dance that surprises in its haunting ending. The scales that were heard in the first movement come back, now sounding as if they are very far away. Prokofiev once called those scales “wind passing through a graveyard.” Indeed they sound like a spirit released from the earthly world.
The second piece on the program is Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante. It’s a chamber piece within a chamber piece, as four soloists perform in contrast with the rest of the orchestra. The work is light, airy, and satisfying. There are lovely moments of harmony amongst the soloists, with oboist Cassie Pilgrim and bassoon player Fei Xie sounding particularly beautiful together. There are also moments of synchronicity, such as a section where Julie Albers on the cello and Copes share the melody.
The concert was a testament to the talent held at the SPCO. Yes, it’s wonderful when audience are treated to guest players from elsewhere, but the SPCO musicians themselves have the capacity to deliver a resounding concert from its core group.

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