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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev: Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, February 24th, 2004 (BK)


Apocryphal Osmo Vänskä stories abound these days and one of them concerns his rehearsals. ‘He never gives up,’ his Lahti players say, ‘So to get home early, you just do what he wants.’

However true this is, there is little doubt (as Stephen North reported in his London Barbican review) that the Minnesota Orchestra seems to like Osmo Vänskä. Gratifyingly, Symphony Hall was very nearly full for this concert which consisted of the Beethoven 4th Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (played by Joshua Bell) and a suite from Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The audience was hugely enthusiastic and with every justification.

I have little to add to the comments by the other Seen and Heard Reviewers on the Beethoven symphony, except to reaffirm how evident the orchestra’s commitment to their new conductor was with every phrase. In Birmingham the players seemed to enjoy themselves immensely while attending to their conductor with a steely concentration. Their sound seemed oddly ‘European’ to my ear: it showed nothing of the tendency of some other American orchestras, to ‘play lazy’ as André Previn once put it. If Vänskä’s term at Minnesota, which is clearly off to the good start he mentioned when I talked to him recently, means a further melding of the best of American and European performance traditions - and I suspect it very well might - his hope that the orchestra’s performances will progressively ‘get better’ seems extremely well founded.

The sound from Joshua Bell’s 1713 "Gibson" Stradivarius never ceases to impress and is, naturally enough, unique. What Bell does with the instrument though, is often equally interesting and this Tchaikovsky concerto was a case in point: the similarities between Tchaikovsky’s operas (especially Onegin completed in the same year as the concerto) and the concerto’s music can rarely have been made so evident. Bell is of course, a masterly player whose technique is essentially limitless. His particular gift in this performance however was to work with the orchestra as if he was a solo singer backed by a particularly competent chorus, and not only in the Canzonetta movement where the song-like structure helps considerably, but also in the bravura passages too. It was ‘artless art’ at its best.

The concert concluded with a suite of movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music, presented by Vänskä in Shakespeare’s narrative order to ‘ trust the great story, rather than building up a triumph of fortissimo fanfares.’ The orchestra’s full strength was allowed full rein with virtuoso playing from all sections, but the Vänskä trademarks of delicately revealed inner parts and huge dynamic range were always in constant evidence. If this tour predicts future results from this orchestra (and it already reflects commitment from its players and conductor) Minnesota’s place in the USA’s ‘Big Five’ looks a racing certainty.

Bill Kenny



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