Vänskä, Minnesota Orchestra bring combustible drama to Miami concert

03.11.12
Minnesota Orchestra
South Florida Classical Review

By David Fleshler

The conductor Osmo Vänskä strode on stage at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall Saturday evening and opened Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a manner the composer might have appreciated. Rather than waiting for the applause to stop, he waved his arms over the members of the Minnesota Orchestra—clearly prepared for this—and silenced the crowd with the gruff four-note motif that opens the symphony.

Vänskä’s powerful musical personality was apparent throughout the evening, as he showed off the orchestra he has conducted to growing acclaim since 2003. This was his first time leading the orchestra inMiami, as part of a five-cityFloridatour. Next they perform Sunday night at theKravisCenterinWest Palm Beach, repeating the program from the Miami concert: Beethoven’s Fifth, the Sibelius Violin Concerto with soloist Midori, and the Brahms Haydn Variations.

The orchestra’s sound is its own, with violins bringing a particular gleam and  richness on top, and a sense of precision and interpretive unity that has resulted from Vänskä’s rigorous rehearsal procedures. And there is a naturalness and flow to the ensemble’s playing, at some times relaxed and lyrical, at others surging and powerful, without a trace of the icy efficiency of which some contemporary orchestras are sometimes accused.

The Beethoven symphony was extremely well-played, with terrific unity in the orchestra and Vänskä’s gift for drawing every bit of energy from every passage. In the first movement, as the various sections took their shot at the main motifs, they entered so assertively—now the violas, now the cellos—it was like a battle within the orchestra, one that gave great bite and drama to the movement. In the variations of the second movement, particularly notable were the soft, quick, running passages in cellos and violas, every note articulated, with an over-arching sense of the long musical line.

The fast triplets of the third movement in the cellos and basses were clear and aggressive. The last movement was joyous and energetic, with the alternating light and darkness of the final minutes given great clarity, color and power.

Vänskä, born and raised in Finland, has a special affinity for his country’s greatest composer, having recently embarked on a project to record all of Sibelius’s symphonies for the second time. In the concerto, Vänskä favored loud, almost explosive orchestral passages that made the most of the sharp contrast already contained within the concerto between orchestra and violin. Midori provided a cool, spidery brilliance that stood out sharply from the heat in the orchestra.

In the first movement, the orchestra suddenly intrudes on the opening of the violin’s cadenza, and you’ll rarely hear it done with this level of abruptness and shock. Midori was extremely attentive to the orchestra throughout, twice leaning in toward the violas as she and that section shared a passage.

Sibelius, an accomplished violinist, wrote a concerto that stretched the technical capabilities of the instrument and is still considered among the most difficult concert works for violin. Midori handled the difficulties with great accuracy and little apparent difficulty—zipping up two strings at once with a staccato bowing, playing octaves and extremely rapid passages, holding a trill with one finger and playing a melody with the others.

At times Vänskä allowed the orchestra to drown out the soloist. In the last movement, for example, the violin engages in a passage in artificial harmonics, glassy ghostly notes that carry the melody and require the cooperation of the conductor to be heard, but in this case they were nearly inaudible.

The concert opened with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, given an exuberant performance that made the most of this jovial, extroverted work. The opening theme was played with great warmth in the woodwinds and Vänskä exercising clear expressive and dynamic control over every note, with a result that sounded natural and lyrically phrased rather than stilted and constricted.