Not Business as Usual for Visiting Minnesotans

Minnesota Orchestra
The New York Times

By James R. Oestreich

It was high time the Minnesota Orchestra and its Finnish music director, Osmo Vanska, brought something else to Carnegie Hall. For five concerts in a row in previous visits an ensemble known to be adventurous in Minneapolis played only Beethoven and Sibelius: great composers, to be sure, and in sterling performances, Sibelius in particular being a Vanska specialty. But still.

Not that adventure was in huge supply on Thursday evening. In a month of Tchaikovsky overload at Carnegie, Minnesota added to the heap: a brief obscurity, the “Voyevoda” Overture; and the First Piano Concerto, heard at Carnegie just 16 days earlier in a performance by Daniil Trifonov with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra. (Carnegie used to forestall repetitions of major works within a season, let alone a month.)

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonia Espansiva”) completed the program. Nielsen’s music deserves greater play, though as it happens, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic have embarked on a symphony cycle and will also perform the “Espansiva” this season, in June at Avery Fisher Hall.

Still, as expected, Nielsen is right up Mr. Vanska’s Nordic alley, and his performance set a high standard. This is music rich in incident, with broad muscular tunes buzzed by flitting ostinatos and often giving way to intricate counterpoint. The third movement and the anthemic finale threaten to break into full-blown fugues a number of times yet prove anything but ponderous or academic.

The full force of Nielsen’s originality comes through in the progression of the second movement, Andante pastorale, from earthy to ethereal. The long weighty pedal point of the opening seems intent on keeping the movement firmly grounded, but midway through, a soprano and baritone give it flight.

The singers function essentially as additional instrumentalists, soaring in vocalise, and Mr. Vanska positioned them behind the orchestra on either side. The baritone, Jeffrey Madison, was initially hard to hear over the strings, but the soprano, Karin Wolverton, projected better and seemed to draw him out.

The Tchaikovsky concerto performance, featuring the seasoned pianist Stephen Hough, was not altogether unwelcome despite its redundancy. It held promise of providing an antidote of sorts to the speed-demon account of the young Mr. Trifonov.

And it was generally an improvement. Though Mr. Hough was not immune to some blurring speed of his own, he maintained greater command over all and shaped the contours more smoothly. (The couple of muffed passages in the first movement did not occur at particularly difficult bravura moments.) And where Mr. Trifonov had found little but contrast in slow passages, Mr. Hough turned up poetry at times with judicious use of rubato.

He and Mr. Vanska were not always at one in matters of tempo, and near the end of the work Mr. Hough simply surrendered to adrenaline, almost leaving the orchestra in his tracks.

The overture to Tchaikovsky’s early opera “Voyevoda” (“The Provincial Governor”), not to be confused with his late symphonic ballad “Voyevoda,” consists mainly of variations on an obsessive theme, and, despite hints of charms to come in the early symphonies, it is no great find. But an excellent performance buttressed the impression of the rest of the evening, that Mr. Vanska has the Minnesota Orchestra sounding like one of America’s finest.