It’s not just Osmo.
The three-week Minnesota Orchestra Music Festival by Jean Sibelius may be the flagship event of Osmo Vänskä’s final season as Music Director, but for now the center of attention is Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä.
Vähälä will perform solo on Sibelius’ hugely popular Violin Concerto this week, but on Friday night she only accomplished something by a handful of violinists. She and the orchestra performed the original version of the concerto, which the composer withdrawn from circulation after its premiere with lackluster reviews.
He then revised it and the original was never played again during his lifetime; permission from the Sibelius family is required to run it. The consensus among scholars and soloists is that it is more difficult to play, but Vähälä has met its many demands with wonderful musicality. Placed between Sibelius’ Sixth and First Symphony, he turned out to be a resounding star tour.
This is not to say that Vänskä and the orchestra did not perform their usual magic with the symphonies of Sibelius. The First and Sixth both received fast-paced interpretations pulsing with energy and striking a bittersweet emotional content. But Vähälä’s playing on the first concerto model was breathtaking, full of fluidity and flair, his tone full-bodied and resonant.
Most of the elements that made the oft-played revision so popular – the dark beauty of the Adagio, the bright, bouncy theme of the mischievous finale – are also in the original. But the first take was longer, especially in the first movement, thanks in large part to a second cadence which allowed Vähälä to bring about a more gloomy character.
You rarely see a partial ovation after the opening movement of a work, but the violinist has earned one.
Achieving the right balance between soloist and orchestra is always a challenge, but Vänskä and Vähälä seemed to be on precisely the same wavelength. His playing was technically flawless throughout the work, but the work also exhibited splendid orchestral color, the low strings creating an atmosphere of foreboding at the opening of the Adagio and lending a sad effort to the main theme of the finale. .
While Sibelius could satisfy his darkest inclinations as eloquently as any composer, this program offered a glimpse of its playfulness. In addition to the delicious dance of the Violin Concerto finale, the opening of the Sixth Symphony swirled with sunny mirth. But the most memorable part of the symphony proved the propulsive and urgent finale, the tension building with each crescendo and withdrawal.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Sibelius’ First, a work that launched into haunting ground with Gabriel Campos Zamora’s hypnotic opening clarinet solo, but which quickly spun off at such a rapid tempo that several notes were neglected. After a welcome whiff of heart-to-heart romance on slow movement, Vänskä’s emphasis on fast pacing returned in an explosive Scherzo.
Those looking for a boost to their pandemic spirit similar to what was delivered by Sibelius’ Second Symphony on the festival’s opening weekend might find what they need in the premiere’s closing movement. Vänskä and the orchestra imbued it with a fascinating mixture of grief and determination, an insistent urgency that seemed deeply powerful.
Thursday-Fri : Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, plus Elina Vähälä playing the Revised Violin Concerto.
Sat-Jan 16: Symphony No. 5, commented by Osmo Vänskä and the violist of the orchestra Sam Bergman.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $ 35- $ 109, 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org