Concert review: Tabea Zimmerman showcases the potential of the viola in Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony


Do orchestras really need a conductor? The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra proves again and again that relay timing is not the only tool to bring musicians together. This weekend, German violist Tabea Zimmermann collaborates with the orchestra as she plays her instrument, stepping up with two relatively little-known works and the Symphony no. 3 in A minor by Felix Mendelssohn, op. 56, known as the Scottish Symphony. After opening the series in Northfield on Thursday, the orchestra performed at the Ordway, with the final performance Sunday at Bethel University.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will perform Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with artistic partner, violinist Tabea Zimmermann, in March 2023. (Marco Borggreve)

The viola is one of the most underappreciated classical musical instruments. Rarely, if ever, singing the melodic line, it is so often highlighted by the more spectacular violins and cellos and the bigger, deeper basses. And yet, his middle tones are an essential part of the string section. Zimmerman, named in 2022 as one of SPCO’s artistic partners, helps show just what a great player’s viola can do.

In the first piece, Overture in C by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister, Zimmermann sits on a chair in front of concertmaster Steven Copes. She leads the music with her breath and movement, singing alongside the musicians to Mendelssohn-Hensel’s clear and dynamic work. The piece has a lovely interplay between the brass and strings, with the rumble of the timpani adding a deep texture.

Zimmermann is front and center for the second piece on the program, Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s “Potpourri (mit Fantasie)” for viola and orchestra. She reminds everyone with her singing that the viola is not an instrument that should be an afterthought. With her rich tones and clear, fast, articulate notes, she delivers a huge performance.

Hummel was a pupil of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a rival (and friend) of Ludwig van Beethoven, and met many other important musicians during his lifetime – including Antonio Salieri, Muzio Clementi and Franz Schubert. Well known during his career, his work fell out of favor after his death, perhaps due to a change in taste from the classical musical style to the Romantic era. The SPCO performance of his ‘Potpourri’ is therefore a treat – both in its rarity and because it contains some flavorful moments.

The work is full of flowers and a beautiful overlay of melodies. Hummel made the classical version of the music, inserting arrangements from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, as well as a Rossini aria in the middle of his composition. As a soloist, Zimmermann shows mastery and also creates a wonderful back and forth with the other instruments.

After the break, the orchestra takes on Felix Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, inspired by the composer’s walking tour of Scotland during his visit to the British Isles in 1829, when he visited the roofless, grass-and-ivy-covered Holrood Abbey, built in the 12th century lea. .

At times it is disturbing and moody, evoking dark clouds and fierce winds. At other times, Mendelssohn interjects the sound of Scottish folk music, adding a syncopated rhythm. A dense journey of a piece, it has moments of transcendence with a haunting ending.

Zimmerman gently brings the orchestra along for the ride as musician and artist.

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