Minnesota Orchestra proves it has a way with Brahms as festival starts

Minnesota Orchestra
Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard


Whenever conductor Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra have tackled the music of Johannes Brahms over the past few seasons, there have been hints that something as thrilling as the group's adventurous Beethoven cycle might be brewing: Interpretations that hurl the status quo to the four winds and inspire you to re-examine the works. Perhaps the upshot of the orchestra's "Bravo Brahms!" festival - at which it performs 11 of the composer's works in a fortnight - will be an emphatic assertion that the Minnesota Orchestra is ready to be considered an outstanding Brahms orchestra.

If that's the goal, Thursday afternoon's festival-opening concert was a strong first step. After an expertly played introduction to the composer's sound (the "Haydn Variations"), Vanska and the orchestra brought urgency and excitement to his Third Symphony. But the most powerful impression came from the centerpiece: A performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto on which soloist James Ehnes and the orchestra seemed astoundingly attuned to the work's whirling ebbs and flows.

So many moods are conveyed in the Brahms concerto that it can give one whiplash, but the segues were remarkably smooth Thursday. After bringing a dancing tone to the first-movement cadenza, Ehnes came out of it singing a lovestruck ballad. Similarly, the Adagio was all wistfulness before anxiety emerged then retreated into sweet, sad sighs, each transition seeming not the least incongruous. It's clear this one-time winner

of the orchestra's WAMSO competition for young soloists has blossomed into an exceptional interpreter.

But the concerto wasn't the concert's only thrill ride. The Third Symphony had many marvelous moments, particularly an opening movement of wild abandon, its rising and receding tones sounding as if we were taking cliff-side corners at high speed. Yet Brahms often brings listeners to rest in the reverence of a hymn, and the orchestra's winds proved the ideal choir for evoking the atmosphere of a peaceful sanctuary.