Review: Sir Donald Runnicles conducts the Minnesota Orchestra in a powerful, emotional concert
By Rob Hubbard
If you feel that you haven’t sufficiently paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth since her death, the Minnesota Orchestra is presenting a particularly British program this weekend.
On the podium is Scottish conductor Sir Donald Runnicles, who was among the last knights upon whom she conferred the honor, having done so in 2020. And half of the music is from England, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” doubly so, for Tallis was something like the country’s national composer back in the Renaissance era. Add Edward Elgar’s “In the South” and you have a vivid musical snapshot of post-Victorian England, when the country was asserting itself as a hotbed of creative composers.
Both were played extraordinarily well at Thursday’s midday Orchestra Hall concert. Runnicles clearly has strong interpretive ideas for those works, and the Minnesota Orchestra did fine things with them, particularly in creating the kind of lush, thick string textures favored by both Vaughan Williams and Elgar.
It’s a quite rewarding program, albeit constructed a bit strangely. In starting with the Vaughan Williams work, Runnicles and the orchestra immediately plunged listeners into a deeply emotional reverie. Inspired by antiphonal church music of Tallis’ era, it features an ensemble of nine echoing the lines of the larger orchestra and a string quartet of soloists stepping forth for intimate exchanges, with violist Jenni Seo and violinist Erin Keefe engaging in involving conversations. Runnicles’ emphasis on dynamic contrast set a high bar for the rest of the concert to transcend.