Reborn and revitalized, the Minnesota Orchestra returns to Chicago

Mon Jan 29, 2018 at 11:43 am

By Tim Sawyier

Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.
Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

On Sunday afternoon the Minnesota Orchestra returned to Orchestra Hall for the first time in over five decades. The ensemble has persevered through an extended musician lockout and dire financial challenges in recent years.

With that drama well behind them now, under the leadership of music director Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesotans delivered bracing readings of repertory cornerstones in a showing well worth the wait.

The matinee performance–the second and final installment of the season’s Symphony Center Presents Orchestra Series–opened with the music of Jean Sibelius. Vänskä is unsurpassed in the interpretation of his countryman’s oeuvre, as demonstrated in his deft handling of the Finnish composer’s tone poem En Saga.

The hushed opening string arpeggios created an icy stasis, below which Vänskä artfully shaped long churning lines. Principal violist Rebecca Albers’ solos were urgently breathless throughout, and Gabriel Campos Zamora’s elegiac clarinet solo in the closing section brought this deeply psychological work to a reflective close. Perhaps most impressive here and throughout the afternoon was the focused sonority of Minnesota string sections, which had a dark, earthy timbre, even at incredibly soft dynamics. 

The program’s centerpiece was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Inon Barnatan as the solo protagonist. There is little music more familiar than the first five minutes of this beloved work, yet between Vänskä and Barnatan the famed introduction fell somewhat flat. Tchaikosky marks this movement “Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso,” but soloist and conductor erred too far on the side of the qualifiers and lost the “Allegro.” Their expansive, rounded approach compromised the opening’s ardor, resulting in a treacly wash.

After this sentimentalized opening,  the performance safely found its footing. Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s favorite composer and Barnatan’s approach was in many ways Mozartean, his playing incisive and lean. At times one wanted more force from the Israeli pianist, particularly in the opening movement.

Still, there are enough pianists who storm through this score with bombast to spare, and his more restrained approach was ultimately compelling. The transparent Andantino benefited most, its middle scherzando section fleet and acrobatic. Barnatan provided ample brio in the closing Allegro con fuoco, giving blistering treatment to the finale’s pyrotechnics.

The second half was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which received an invigorating reading from Vänskä and the Minnesotans. The expansive introduction was well paced, and the ensuing Vivace light on its feet yet also visceral in impact. Throughout Vänskä astutely highlighted details in the backing string parts, infusing vitality into the familiar orchestral textures. 

The Allegretto also showcased the exquisite playing of the Minnesota string sections, especially at the softest dynamic levels, which were barely audible yet resonated even in Orchestra Hall’s dry acoustic. The Presto had ample vitality, and its trios were imbued with a regal sheen from the whole ensemble. The closing Allegro con brio went with incendiary abandon, bringing the program to an emphatic close and receiving a deserved standing ovation.

By way of an encore Vänskä returned to Sibelius for the composer’s Dance Intermezzo, Op. 45 No. 2. This bonbon made for a charming, three-minute sendoff, highlighted by characterful solos from the orchestra’s woodwind principals.

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