André Watts & Osmo Vänskä — Images via cmartists.com & harrisonparrott.com

Nielsen, Sibelius & Brahms

André Watts & Minnesota Orchestra
Conducted by Osmo Vänskä

The Minnesota Orchestra‘s rejuvenation is undeniably on a roll at the moment. Days after the orchestra’s triumphant return from a historic trip to Cuba, management announced three-year contract extensions with the musicians and music director Osmo Vänskä. Now the musicians are in the midst of a three-week season-closing run of concerts, interspersed with recording sessions at which they will finally complete their acclaimed Sibelius symphony cycle. Of course, all of this only matters if the music is back to form. On the evidence of this weekend’s concerts with Vänskä and pianist André Watts, it is, and then some.

The program opened with a rarity, Carl Nielsen’s brief symphonic poem Pan and Syrinx. At times the piece seemed like a condensation of one of Nielsen’s symphonies, with chugging dissonances and assertive percussion. At other times it was reminiscent of Debussy, with languorous wind solos that the musicians executed beautifully. Undoubtedly the orchestra’s performance won the unfamiliar piece some new fans.

I will admit to an uncommon fondness for Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3. It’s not his most popular symphony. The program notes for this weekend’s performance set modest expectations, referencing, among other things, the piece’s “absence of memorable, expansive themes.” Based on the number of times I’ve composed nonsense lyrics about my cats to the theme from the second movement, I must beg to differ. To me, the Third has always seemed like a more restrained cousin to the composer’s better-known Violin Concerto, with almost obsessive themes that gradually reveal themselves over the course of each movement. Its finale also nods to Beethoven’s 9th, with fragments of the first two movements devolving into confusion before the emergence of the heroic closing chorale. Vänskä’s rendition seemed to emphasize the halting nature of these developments, and the musicians made short work of the piece’s challenges, particularly the way the melodies often need to be passed off seamlessly from one instrumental group to another.

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is a huge piece that places enormous demands on the soloist. This weekend’s pianist, André Watts, met those demands with a muscular, but not showy, approach to the material. He particularly excelled in the quieter and more contemplative portions of the piece, especially his third-movement duet with equally excelled principal cellist Anthony Ross. The orchestra was an assertive presence throughout, emphasizing the symphonic nature of the concerto. It’s a very long piece with an occasional tendency toward bombast, especially in the first movement, but Watts and the orchestra held the audience’s attention and ultimately won thunderous applause.

Next weekend, the orchestra and Vänskä are back for more Sibelius, paired with Mahler. If they can match the success of this performance, it should be a concert to look forward to, bringing an appropriate end to an extraordinary spring for the orchestra and its fans.

André Watts photo by Steve J. Sherman
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.