Music

Minnesota Orchestra concludes a tough year with a cathartic concert

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An eruption occurred about halfway through the Minnesota Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert at an Orchestra Hall devoid of audience members. When music director Osmo Vänskä took the podium for the first time since early October, a catharsis gushed forth.

The piece was “Starburst” by American composer Jessie Montgomery, whose music is deservedly getting a lot more attention from American orchestras. This wind-whipped work for strings became an onstage storm in the hands of Vänskä and the 24 masked and socially distanced string players gracing the stage.

It proved the release I’d craved. Even though I was only experiencing it via computer, it seemed to unleash a torrent of bottled-up tension. While only lasting a few minutes, it was liberating.

The concert was presented live from the hall in Minneapolis, but can still be viewed online at the orchestra’s website, minnesotaorchestra.org. It’s actually more like a trilogy of mini-concerts, the first featuring a brass quintet, the second a woodwind octet and the finale strictly strings. While it might not slake your thirst for the sound of a full orchestra, it’s great to hear that glorious string blend again. And some of the chamber music is exquisitely played.

Mozart’s Serenade No. 11 in E-flat stands as the concert’s centerpiece, a work almost as long as the program’s other seven pieces combined.

Thursday’s performance presented a cogent argument that the livestreaming of concerts has some advantages over attending in person. Thanks to some solid cinematography, you’re given a strong sense of the eight musicians’ interplay, their conversations both musical and visual. The video presentation offers an intimacy that you couldn’t hope to get no matter how close to the stage you sat. While the audio balance wasn’t always ideal — the oboes and clarinets were played splendidly, but sometimes overwhelmed the bassoons and French horns — it was a performance both calming and invigorating.

Similarly, the brass quintet that started the concert proved at its best with the most familiar material, in its case former Twin Citian Michael Levine’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s “My Spirit Be Joyful” from his Cantata No. 146. While all the players were strong, I was particularly impressed by Steven Campbell’s tuba, both mellifluous and bold.

The orchestra has made a commitment to presenting more works by composers of color, and Montgomery’s “Starburst” was one of two from the pens of African American composers, the other being half of Ulysses Kay’s Six Dances for String Orchestra. Written in the mid-1950s, they’re very much from the neoclassical realm, placing modern harmonies atop 18th-century structures. Coming immediately after the explosive Montgomery piece, it felt like a light respite.

But those seeking layers of emotion more befitting the close of such a tumultuous year can find them in an Antonin Dvorak Nocturne. Vänskä and the strings brought ample urgency to their interpretation, conjuring a sad beauty from this short work that started life as a string quartet movement.

If you long for an experience more akin to the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Day collection of Viennese waltzes, a taste comes courtesy of the “Pizzicato Polka” created by two Strauss brothers. While the program listed it as the finale, thank goodness Vänskä and the strings didn’t settle for such a trite ending to a troubling year. A far more appropriate finale was an encore of “Auld Lang Syne,” arranged by Arthur Luck.

Schmaltzy? Sure. But also touchingly tender, especially when, at its conclusion, the players stomped their feet in farewell to violist Thomas Turner, who’s retiring after 26 years with the orchestra.

Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • [email protected]

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