Inside the Midwest’s conductorless orchestramain
Our diarist Anthea Kreston is in the hot seat this month at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the state of Minnesota. The SPCO has no chief conductor. Its concerts are directed by artistic partners. Could this be a model for orchestral democracy in the heartland of Trump? Read on:
I am having a blast playing with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. This week‘s program is English Baroque music, conducted by Richard Egarr (the SPCO just named him an Artistic Partner), who is quite the eccentric. He is frighteningly intelligent, naturally energetic, passionate, and informed – his halo of curly, semi-greying hair frames a face which transforms as the music changes – one moment he looks as if he is haunted, the next – a goofy grin sweeps over his face and his eyes are cross-eyed. He lives the music, and in rehearsal takes up a huge amount of real-estate – hopping from one side of the orchestra to the other, connecting to each player, then barely making it back to pounce on his embedded harpsichord.
He disagrees with pre-determined dynamics – anything can and will happen – which creates a necessary engagement between player and director. He sprinkled his stream-of-conscious rehearsal instructions with Monty Python quotes, extrapolated bits from various Baroque treatises, and references to 50’s crooners. And he plays something different every time he touches the keyboard. You have to be your sharpest to even have a dream of keeping up with him.
The orchestra is small – 4 violins per section, 3 violas and 3 celli, 1 bass, and a smattering of winds and brass. This week, the first desks of the violins is entirely made of Curtis grads – my standpartner is Eunice Kim (we share Ida Kavafian as a former teacher), the assistant concertmaster is Maureen Nelson (formerly of the Enso Quartet) and concertmaster is Ruggero Allifranchini (formerly of the Borromeo Quartet). Sitting across from me are the incredible violist and cellist Maiya Papach and Julie Albers. What a treat.
Concerts start tomorrow – four this week. Next week Patricia Kopatchinskaja, another artistic partner of Saint Paul, leads and directs the orchestra. There is snow on the ground already here, and I have to duck my head against the wind as I walk the blocks between my hotel and the Ordway, but things inside are warm and crackling.