Minnesota Orchestra throws a send-off filled with American fireworks
Some pieces of music are virtually indestructible, and the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” is one of them. It crackled like a mini-fireworks display at Wednesday evening’s Minnesota Orchestra concert, a send-off event for the players as they embark on a tour to South Africa.
But first, the orchestra will stop off in London for a concert at the BBC Proms. Wednesday’s concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis gave local classical fans the opportunity to preview the all-American Proms program.
Music director Osmo Vänskä’s “Candide” overture was a typically canny piece of conducting — bristling with energy, but with space for woodwind soloists to etch the detail that makes the music effervesce and bubble.
Next came Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, with American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan as soloist. Barnatan lives in New York — as Gershwin did — and has the pulse and rhythms of the city in his musical circuitry. Jigging and swaying on the piano stool, Barnatan brought an improvisational freedom to the piano writing, flicking arpeggios lightheartedly and lingering affectionately on Gershwin’s bluesy melodies.
Principal trumpet Manny Laureano played a keening solo in the slow movement. It was the perfect foil to Barnatan’s spruce, elegant excursions on the piano, sparkling like a freshly poured cocktail.
The finale fizzed with energy, Barnatan rattling off Gershwin’s toccata-like figuration with the alacrity of a champion speed-typist. He played a short encore to partly quell the excitement of a delighted audience — a freewheeling fantasy on Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” dispatched with Lisztian flamboyance.
For lovers of rare repertoire, the real treat came after intermission, in the shape of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony.
It’s not a perfect work: Ives was a stubborn composer who liked setting his own problems and working out his own solutions. The results are often wrenchingly idiosyncratic.
The “problem” Ives set himself in the Second Symphony was harnessing the raw energy and emotional resonance of American folk music in a classical context. Snatches of beloved American melodies — “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Camptown Races” — are heard throughout the symphony, woven by Ives into a rich tapestry of reminiscence.
Vänskä’s customary astuteness in matters of tempo and balance pulled the various shreds of Ives’ super-fertile musical imagination together into a performance of striking cogency and conviction.
The jangling finale was a particular triumph, its teeming profusion of ideas and episodes thrillingly encapsulating the great, restless scurry of American living. The trombones relished a few rambunctious moments with American songwriter Stephen Foster. And the monstrous dissonance employed by Ives at the ending was timed to perfection.
Amid prolonged applause, a special call went out to associate concertmaster Roger Frisch, making his last hometown appearance after 44 years with the Minnesota Orchestra. He and conductor Vänskä exchanged high-fives at the final ovation. Then they exited stage right to start packing their suitcases for London and South Africa.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.