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Tabea Zimmerman showcases the viola’s potential in Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony – Twin Cities


Do orchestras really need a conductor? The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra proves again and again that baton timekeeping isn’t the only tool to bring musicians together. This weekend, German violist Tabea Zimmermann partners with the orchestra while she plays her instrument, soaring with two relatively little-known works and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, known as the Scottish Symphony. After opening the series in Northfield on Thursday, the orchestra performed at the Ordway, with its final performance on Sunday at Bethel University.

Violist Tabea Zimmermann
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will perform Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with Artistic Partner, violist Tabea Zimmermann, in March 2023. (Marco Borggreve)

The viola is one of the most underappreciated of classical musical instruments. Rarely if ever playing the melodic line, it so often gets upstaged by the more showy violins and the larger, deeper cellos and bass. And yet, its 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 viola played by a great player can do.

In the first piece, Overture in C by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister, Zimmermann sits in a chair opposite concertmaster Steven Copes. She leads the music in with her breath and movement, playing alongside the musicians to Mendelssohn-Hensel’s crisp, dynamic work. The piece has a wonderful interplay between the wind instruments and the strings, with the thrum of the timpani adding a deep texture.

Zimmermann stands 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 playing that the viola is not an instrument that should be an afterthought. With her rich tones and clear, articulate fast notes, she delivers an immense performance.

Hummel was a student of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a rival (and friend) of Ludwig van Beethoven, and knew many other important musicians during his life — 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 shift in tastes from the classical music style to the romantic era. The SPCO’s performance of his “Potpourri” is therefor a treat — both in its rarity and also because it contains some flavorful moments.

The work is filled with flourishes, and a nice overlapping of melodies. Hummel did the classical version of music sampling, inserting arrangements from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the Marriage of Figaro as well as an Rossini aria amidst his composition. As a soloist, Zimmermann displays mastery, and also creates a lovely back and forth with the other instruments.

After intermission, 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-overgrown Holrood Abbey, built in the 12th century.

At times it is brooding and moody, evoking dark clouds and ferocious 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 a fellow musician and artist.

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