John Frayne: Minnesota Orchestra was perfect at Krannert

John Frayne: Minnesota Orchestra was perfect at Krannert

There are some performances that create "buzz." On Friday, just about everyone I talked to wanted to say how wonderful the previous night's concert at the Foellinger Great Hall of the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vanska, with Inon Barnatan as piano soloist, had been. And I strongly agreed. The audience the night before seemed to be leaving the Krannert Center in a combination of a daze and a glow.

The excellence of the Minnesota Orchestra, formerly the "Minneapolis Symphony," has been no secret, since the days of Eugene Ormandy in the 1930s, and such conductors as Dimitri Metropoulos and Antal Dorati in the succeeding decades.

Despite labor troubles in recent years, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota ensemble has gained fame for their cycle of the Symphonies of Jean Sibelius, climaxing with a Grammy Award in 2014 for their recording of Sibelius' First and Fourth Symphonies.

Vanska, himself a Finn, comes to the music of Sibelius as if by birthright. He and the Minnesota players tore into Sibelius early (1892, revised 1902) tone poem "En Saga" (title in Swedish) with fierce energy. Sibelius never revealed what, if any specific "Saga" he had in mind, but the music clearly reflects a series of conflicts relieved by stirring melodies, propelled by insistent rhythms which haunt one for days after. The special genius of Sibelius is that his music seems to unfold by an inevitable logic, but it retains the secret of how it continually surprises us. The Minnesota brass snarled its way memorably through this music, and the lower strings helped to create a mood of ominous gloom. In the final moments of calm, the woodwinds excelled, and were called upon for bows.

Next came that most bemedaled of mighty warhorses, the Peter Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Inon Barnatan at the keyboard. Barnatan had impressed me with the subtlety of his playing last January when he appeared in a concert of chamber music. This concerto demands the acme of bravura piano virtuosity, and Barnatan, whose hands became a blur on the keys, met the technical challenges of this work with brilliant success. He also impressed me with the finesse with which he altered his volume level in the smallest of phrases. Barnatan and Vänskä also won my admiration by the clarity with which they succeeded in making the somewhat disjointed transitions of the opening movement sound coherent. The stirring climax of that first movement is for me a test of an audience's spontaneity. Tchaikovsky almost screams for applause, and he got it from us on Thursday night. But that applause was moderate compared to the roars of approval that came at the end of the concerto. Later, I was asked by members of the audience why Tchaikovsky did not repeat that wonderful melody of the first movement introduction. That question has puzzled me since I first heard this work many decades ago. My thought now is that Tchaikovsky, who was not shy about beating his materials into the ground, for once decided that "enough is enough." Apparently, Barnatan also thought so, for he did not play an encore.

The concert concluded with a superb performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. What can one say about such a masterpiece? I sometimes think it is overplayed, and then I am swept away at the performance. The Minnesota orchestra performance, under Vänskä's subtle and decisive baton, was a model of judicious interplay of speed and volume. The slow movement sang beautifully after the uproarious opening movement, and the scherzo (my favorite) delivered delightful hammer blows in the wonderful Trio repeats. The whirligig finale proves yet once more what two trumpets can do to give the ultimate cap to an unending series of climaxes. In response to the clamorous standing ovation, Vänskä announced an encore. I did not hear his explanation. As it turned out the orchestra played a piece by Sibelius that did not immediately say "Sibelius." It was his light and lilting "Dance-Intermezzo, Op. 45. No. 2." It was the right choice to end a perfect concert.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.