Evan Quinn and his world in Perceval have not been in the forefront of my writing so far this year, so I haven’t been going to concerts, although I have been spending quite a lot of time in the science fiction realm and thinking about Evan and his world from that angle. I’ve missed the concerts. A concert by the Minnesota Orchestra this past week remedied that; in fact, the program had pulled at me for months, unrelenting. This concert also offered another opportunity to watch a world-class conductor in two roles: as accompanist and as the main event with his musical instrument.
The first work was an unusual treat: Nebojsa Zivkovic’s Concerto No. 2 for Marimba and Orchestra, Op. 25, with the composer as soloist. Marimba! And the second concerto! I had no idea what to expect, and that was a good thing. Contemporary in his approach to tonality, Zivkovic was a storyteller in his approach to structure. Using the 3-movement concerto structure like dramatic narrative structure, the first movement introduced the marimba’s voice to the orchestra, representing a group the marimba would like to join. Their conversation plays with a lovely musical motif. Eventually, the orchestra, and its percussion section, accept the marimba. The second movement is a marimba dance of contribution, with passages of approval by various instruments. The last movement, the relationship has changed to one of competition between soloist and orchestra. Zivkovic’s playing astonished me. The marimba is limited in its sound landscape but Zivkovic managed to expand that landscape in imaginative ways. Conductor Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra proved to be more than worthy collaborators in this marimba drama, showing their versatility in the aleatoric and rhythmically challenging sections and their precision in ensemble playing. Neither soloist nor orchestra had it easy with this concerto. What a revelation.
After intermission came the work that had been pulling at me for months: Symphony No. 7 in E minor by Gustav Mahler. This symphony is massive, difficult, but oh, so rewarding. I know this symphony fairly well, so Vanska’s tempos in the first movement put me off at first. They seemed exaggerated to the extreme. Mahler can be extreme, but I wasn’t so sure that this kind of extreme was what Mahler had had in mind. My initial reaction began to fade with each allegro risoluto section that contrasted with the langsam sections and their ominous theme. The sense of clinical depression depicted in music creeped into my mind, which supported my first reaction to the Scherzo as being a musical portrait of neuroses or schizophrenia. The music struggled within itself, minor vs. major keys, lethargic and heavy tempo vs. more of a resolute striding one. Apparently, Mahler had said that this symphony depicts a movement from darkness into sunlight. The second movement, Nachtmusik (Night music), reminds me strongly of Vienna, Austria, cafe life in Vienna, fin de siecle Vienna, Gustav Klimt Vienna, intertwined with a lilting dance of rural Austria, the Austria of the lake district. It’s not happy music, but it’s not as dark as the first movement, and Vanska’s playing brought out the tempo contrasts, timbre contrasts, and the inner voices which can be sometimes difficult to hear. The Scherzo and its abrupt rhythmical motif presented another struggle, although for my money, I still think this struggle is one of the mind rather than the heart (I think his 9th Symphony is about the heart). And of course! Mahler layers one struggle upon another as a writer would layer conflict upon conflict. The fourth movement is another Nachtmusik, and this one reminds me of a happier Vienna, the Sunday afternoons listening to the band at the Kursalon, hiking through the Vienna Woods accompanied by a mandolin, eating gelato while strolling Kaerntnerstrasse, or having a picnic Jause at a Heurigen in the 19th District. Struggle now has become more of an undercurrent that pushes up at times in the music. The final movement, a rondo, triumphs over all the struggles of the first four movements and brings everyone back into the light and sanity. I have loved this symphony since I first heard it in concert in Vienna, Austria, in October 1974. This symphony could easily defeat a conductor, overcome his abilities and descend into a muddled mess. But not Osmo Vanska. He commanded this music. He and the Minnesota Orchestra renewed my love for this symphony and brought it to a deeper level.
Osmo Vanska clarifies tempos and dynamics in a way that clarifies the music for me. The orchestra musicians’ precision in ensemble playing, dedication and discipline elevated this concert into the realm of brilliance. And as proud as I am of them, all I really care about is the music and that they play it musically and well. Done and done. Awesome….