The opening of Osmo Vänskä’s final season with the Minnesota Orchestra echoed his first time at the helm of the ensemble in 2000. That year, while guest conductor, the famous Finnish music director of the orchestra teamed up with a young violin star named Joshua Bell, playing Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor.
The duo, along with the Minnesota Orchestra, have worked together on several occasions since, including tours across Europe, and it was a pleasure to see them play against each other on Thursday night. It was one of the many nods to Vänskä’s legacy that are packed into this year’s season, which is packed with guest appearances and works that bring back memorable moments from the past two decades.
The crowd couldn’t have been more prepared. Opening to capacity (with vaccine card and mask requirements), the orchestra hall was packed with music lovers Thursday night. Some carrying Finnish flags in honor of Vänskä, others sipping the glass of sparkling wine offered to participants, the audience enthusiastically moved outside ahead of the performance. Then, after being introduced, they were greeted by a bright and cheerful orchestra, with many musicians dressed in purple, hot pink, mauve and wine red dresses.
The season began with a mandatory performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, arranged by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski from music by John Stafford. Somehow, despite years of athlete kneeling protests over this song at sporting events, the tradition of playing it to start a season of classical music continues.
The performance of the controversial hymn became a point of context for a later piece on the program, “Banner,” by Jessie Montgomery, performed after the intermission. This work combines elements of Stafford’s melody with other hymns from around the world, as well as the “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, otherwise known as the Black National Anthem. Montgomery’s 2014 play is not a rebuttal of The Star Spangled Banner, nor a riff. Rather, she studies a richer and more multifaceted notion of what a song might sound like for America. What she has proposed is sometimes messy, innovative, full of points of tension and also of joy.
Another piece of 21st century music on the program was Kalevi Aho’s “Minea”: Concertante Music for Orchestra, written for the Minnesota Orchestra in 2009. The moody and often cinematic work took the listener to dark and eerie places. There were also some exciting moments and musical influences from different parts of the world. From West African percussion to music from North Africa and South Asia, Aho threw a lot of different sounds into the pot, maybe just to see how they blend together.
Joshua Bell’s appearance followed the Aho play. During the prelude and four other movements of “Scottish Fantasy” for violin and orchestra, Opus 46, Bell stood fairly close to Vanska. They were constantly checking each other, moving in harmony as in a dance. Bell, for his part, presented a velvety sound with the delicious piece of music, effortlessly walking through the double stops with lively vigor.
The program finale was another nod to Vänskä’s career with the orchestra: Beethoven. Under Vänskä’s direction, the orchestra recorded all nine symphonies with great success and performed Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67 with majesty, richness and dynamism. From painful moments of calm to resounding and thrilling greatness, the performance was captivating from start to finish.
The program will be repeated on Friday evening at the Orchestra hall.
Minnesota Orchestra: coming soon
- Who: The Minnesota Orchestra with conductor Osmo Vänskä
- What: “Vänskä conducts Romeo and Juliet”
- When: Sep 30-Oct 2
- Or: Orchestra hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
- Tickets: $ 99 to $ 25 to minnesotaorchestra.org
- Capsule: Osmo Vänskä continues his final season conducting the Romeo and Juliet Suite by Sergei Prokofiev, as well as works by Valerie Coleman and Kaija Saariaho.