Back in research mode this past week when I attended my first Minnesota Orchestra concert of the new season. A pleasure to return to the familiar salmon-colored and golden wood auditorium with its superb acoustics. The program began with J.S. Bach: the first two movements of the Third Brandenburg Concerto with an interesting twist, i.e. the first movement was actually the “Sinfonia” orchestration Bach did for his Cantata 174, and the second movement returned to the original orchestration. I love Bach’s music, and it is a particular joy to hear this orchestra play Bach. Watching Osmo Vanska, the conductor (and music director), gave me ideas for Evan Quinn’s St. Petersburg concert in Novel Three, but Evan will also be playing the violin as well as conducting a Bach violin concerto. Hmmm. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians played with precision and energy, the transparency of the counterpoint and melody clear and refreshing. The Bach was like a “palate-cleansing” prelude to the rest of the concert.
A major stage re-set after the Bach as stagehands removed the harpsichord and brought out the concert grand piano. The first thing I noticed was the placement of the piano, right over the podium, not giving Vanska much space to move, but positioning conductor and piano soloist about as close as possible. That physical closeness reflects the artistic closeness of conductor and soloist — both focus completely on the music and Beethoven’s intention without flamboyant flourishes or facial grimaces. The soloist, Yevgeny Sudbin, is a quite tall, skinny young man with large eyes and long fingers. He sits at the piano very close and on the edge of the bench. And this guy achieves clarity of articulation and line that still has warmth and music emanating from the inside as he played the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (a favorite of mine). Pure Beethoven. The tension in the second movement beautifully taut as the piano persuades the orchestra with its musical perseverance. Sudbin’s trills in the last movement were so clear, they were like bells ringing. The orchestra’s playing matched Sudbin’s so closely in tempo that I heard sonic echoes and resonances I’d never heard before, so that Vanska and the orchestra were more equal collaborators rather than accompanists. Excellent and sublime, and I was excited to learn that these artists will record all the Beethoven piano concertos, beginning with the Fourth in January.
The Brahms First Symphony enjoys an important place in Evan Quinn’s life, so I’m always quite happy to hear it in concert and watch Vanska conduct it. From the opening timpani and tragic strings to the heroic themes of the finale, this symphony is a journey and Vanska is an excellent guide. His tempos were a bit brisker than most conductors take, but I think he follows Brahms’ metronome markings in the score. Vanska’s tempos reveal a lightness of line at times, a sweetness in the second movement, and a more driving momentum in the third. His ppp of the pizzicato strings in the last movement was really, really quiet and it felt as if the audience was holding its collective breath. Vanska’s expressive conducting gave me ideas (again) for Evan when he conducts his Brahms symphony concerts in Novel Three. An excellent concert, sublime in the performance and listening.
I felt clean after the concert, somehow cleansed from the anxieties of daily life and open to my imagination, to the brisk and sunny autumn day outdoors. Happy and contented.