Minnesota Orchestra & Osmo Vanska — Image via facebook.com/minnesotaorchestra

Osmo Vänskä Returns

Minnesota Orchestra
Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4

“Osmo come home.” That was the shout by one gutsy audience member that set off at least five minutes of applause and cheers before Friday’s performance by the Minnesota Orchestra under former music director Osmo Vänskä. Showing their support for the Finnish conductor’s permanent return — which he is currently negotiating with the board — many audience members waved Finnish flags, and the Young Musicians of Minnesota unfurled a banner bearing the slogan “Finnish It.” Ultimately, the only thing that could put a stop to this burst of enthusiasm was a prosaic recorded message reminding everyone to turn off their cell phones.

This weekend’s concerts were the musicians’ first opportunity to work with Vänskä since he conducted them in an emotional farewell concert in October, a few days after his resignation in the midst of management’s 16-month lockout. They were also a celebration of the orchestra’s recent Grammy award for their recording of Sibelius’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, and those two pieces constituted the program.

The concert began with the thornier Symphony No. 4. This piece is generally considered fairly grim, but Friday’s performance, though definitely giving expression to the symphony’s darker side, maintained a more ambiguous overall mood. The first movement received a particularly gentle rendition, coming across more like the memory of suffering than suffering itself. The same restraint and open-endedness characterized the remainder of the symphony — which is not to say that the musicians held back from conveying the emotional turmoil of the third movement or the sharp accents of the second and fourth. It’s a difficult piece, and the orchestra was right not to end the concert with it, but Vänskä’s approach did open things up a bit.

Symphony No. 1 is an easier sell, with its lush textures and romantic sensibility. Among the standout characteristics of this performance were the precision, energy, and color with which the musicians articulated Sibelius’s off-kilter rhythms and long-spun melodies. Following this month’s unfortunate permanent departure of principal clarinet Burt Hara, acting principal Gregory T. Williams did an excellent job with the symphony’s haunting introduction, and the orchestra’s thrilling rendition of the piece’s weighty finale deserved the encore it received after a long standing ovation.

There have certainly been signs recently that the Minnesota Orchestral Association is trying to get its house in order. Last week, the association announced that CEO Michael Henson, an architect of the lockout, will leave at the end of August. This week, eight of Henson’s allies on the board resigned, and Vänskä told reporters that he and the association have begun negotiations on his return to a formal position with the orchestra. If that development comes to pass, it will no doubt be a step in the right direction for an institution that was almost lost but that has proven its continued dedication to presenting uncompromising performances of great music.

Photo by Greg Helgeson

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.