From September to May, the world's top classical musicians spend most of their time flying from city to city, for that's where the major orchestras and concert halls are. So the old St. Croix River town of Stillwater must seem an oasis of rustic charm, if they've agreed to be part of the St. Croix Concert Series. On Friday night, an internationally acclaimed group, the Borromeo String Quartet, dropped into Stillwater for a concert with an outstanding clarinetist, Todd Palmer. Launching the 10th St. Croix Concert Series season, it proved to be a delicious sampler of chamber music masterpieces, running the emotional gamut from dark intensity to ebullient delight.
Considering the Borromeo String Quartet has won awards for its advocacy of new music, their selections for this concert may have surprised some, with the holy trinity of classical composers -- Bach, Beethoven and Mozart -- represented on the program at Trinity Lutheran Church.
The lone contemporary exception to this greatest hits package was a movement from Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," but that was a haunting and hypnotic solo performance by Palmer, played by candlelight.
The Bach was a string quartet arrangement of a fugue from his "Well-Tempered Clavier," and first violinist Nicholas Kitchen explained that it seemed a fitting introduction to Beethoven's Opus 131 String Quartet. And, yes, the fugues in that very late Beethoven quartet exposed the composer's foundation in Bach.
But the Borromeo Quartet played them with an emotional fury well-suited to Beethoven. The intensity really kicked in on the unnervingly agitated Presto, guiding listeners to a finale that pounded like Beethoven banging back at fate's persistent knock.
What a joy to be able to experience what is probably the most popular piece for clarinet and string quartet -- Mozart's A-Major Clarinet Quintet -- being played by five expert interpreters like Palmer and the Borromeos. It didn't necessarily take one to unexpected places, but that's OK, for this is a jolly dance of a piece.
All four movements were played with precision and energy, but the most memorable was the minuet, in which Palmer sounded like an earthy bumpkin crashing a formal ball and teaching some folk dances to the well-heeled guests.
The St. Croix Concert Series runs through March, with concerts by the choral group Cantus, guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad, and the Perlman/Schmidt/Bailey Trio.
More information is available at stcroixconcertseries.org.
Rob Hubbard is an associate producer for American Public Media's "Performance Today."