Alisa Weilerstein & Osmo Vänskä — Images via opus3artists.com & harrisonparrott.com

Minnesota Orchestra: Barber & Mahler

Conducted by Osmo Vänskä

Friday’s concert by the Minnesota Orchestra had the distinction of being the ensemble’s first true opening night in three years, and the musicians and conductor Osmo Vänskä seemed determined to make the moment count with an emotionally laden, challenging program. Joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto and by soprano Linh Kauffman, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala and the Minnesota Chorale in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the orchestra gave intensely focused performances of both works, setting the stage for what everyone clearly hopes will be a season of rebirth and deepened engagement with audiences.

Weilerstein has gained a reputation as a passionate interpreter of the cello repertoire, and she and the orchestra gave a determined rendition of Barber’s angularly romantic concerto, a work that places great demands on the soloist’s virtuosity and the orchestra’s rhythmic precision. Particular highlights included Weilerstein’s gripping cadenzas and the slow movement’s lyrical interplay between cello and oboe.

Mahler’s second symphony, dubbed the “Resurrection” (a theme whose significance was not lost on anyone after the orchestra’s recent near-destruction) is a monster of a piece, coming in at about 80 minutes and featuring a full choir that sits silently for the first hour. It is certainly not the type of populist fare one might encounter on the typical opening night. And to the extent that this programming choice was meant as a test of singer and radio host Jearlyn Steele’s assertion, during a video that was played after intermission, that “whether it’s above your head or not, you can still enjoy it,” the orchestra’s rendition of the piece evidently succeeded, earning thunderous applause. Even in the symphony’s most challenging section for listeners — the episodic first half of the massive final movement, before the choir’s entry — the musicians maintained a clear sense of direction, building anticipation for the piece’s monumental apotheosis, which gained a great deal from the outstanding contributions of the soloists and choir.

This weekend’s concerts seemed designed to communicate that the rejuvenated Minnesota Orchestra is committed, unapologetically, to playing “serious” music and to inviting audiences to experience that music fully. Of course, the orchestra is not about to stop playing pops concerts or programming some familiar, accessible pieces in its classical concerts, but one gets a sense of the institution’s growing faith in listeners’ ability to respond to more difficult pieces as long as those pieces are performed in a way that demands a response. Now it’s up to both the orchestra and its audiences to sustain the momentum coming out of these compelling performances.

Alisa Weilerstein photo by Gerardo Antonio Sánchez Torres
Osmo Vänskä photo by Kaapo Kamu

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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.