The first time I became aware of the Minnesota Orchestra and its long-time conductor Osmo Vanska was upon receiving its 2006 Grammy-nominated recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as a birthday gift from my father-in-law a few years ago. The Minneapolis-based Orchestra’s recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies are considered extraordinary. Indeed, the group has numerous Grammy nominations and wins – this year its Mahler Five is up for another.
It’s been fifty years since the Orchestra, founded in 1903, graced Chicago’s Symphony Hall, but yesterday they were in town for a matinee performance with pianist Inon Barnatan. I’ve had my eye on the coming concert for a while, but I only decided to get a ticket a few hours before showtime. The cheaper balcony seats were all taken, so I splurged a bit for a Sunday afternoon and snagged a great spot front and center.
Conductor Osmo Vanska is Finnish, and he specializes in the music of his compatriot composer Jean Sibelius. The first work of the program was his En Saga, an emotional work about which Sibelius said, “En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely.” The work was originally written in 1892, though it received a heavy revision in 1902. A tone poem, its multiplicity of textures and colors and dynamics are compelling – the melodies are wholly approachable. Though Sibelius was a violinist, there is a notable recurring solo for viola throughout, skillfully executed by principal Rebecca Albers.
The Symphony Center’s piano lift and accompanying burly men were put to work following the tone poem as the stage was set for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1. The pianist of the day was Inon Barnatan, a 39-year-old Israeli living in New York, where he just completed a three-year residency with the New York Philharmonic. Though I didn’t know of him before doing a little homework in the morning prior to the show, his resume is quite deep.
The Tchaikovsky Concerto presents one of the most famous opening passages in all of music – a series of huge chords on the piano backed by an orchestral theme of epic proportions, the kind of grand theme that makes Tchaikovsky a legend. The piano picks up the inspirational theme for a moment, and then it vanishes from the work. The rest of the concerto contains piano cadenzas made for virtuosos, interspersed with other themes, purely Russian and totally delightful. The concerto rarely takes a break as it hurls toward a breathtaking finale.
The Minnesota Orchestra hit its stride after intermission, in the final programmed piece of the matinee – Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The work is pure joy – a feast of rhythmic delight and memorable themes. The second movement is particularly engaging, a simple yet earnest melody treated with dynamics and a persistence that’s infectious. The third and fourth movements are a frenzy culminating in a leap-from-your-chair finale. It was the third movement’s salient theme that I sang out loud as I walked home after the concert grinning.
All this leaping from chairs prompted an encore, perhaps planned, as I couldn’t help but notice a harp standing lonely on stage throughout that had no other moment to shine. The ensemble ended as it began, with Sibelius, a brief treat of jaunty and percussive folk-music inspired fun.
One of the best parts of the show was the joy in the performers’ eyes and faces as they played. It seemed clear that the group was having as much fun as the audience. I always hope that, of all us worker bees in all fields, at least those talented and lucky enough to make their careers in music performance can enjoy their workdays. I’m grateful to my father-in-law for introducing me to the group with that Beethoven birthday CD, and I plan on keeping an eye out for Minnesota Orchestra appearances in my vicinity in the future.
Thanks for reading.