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S & H International Concert Review

Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947), Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77, Prokofiev: Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (Vln), Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director and Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 9, 2004 (BH)


In his first Carnegie appearance since his appointment with the outstanding Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä offered a generous program of 20th century Russian works. The opener, the brief, seldom done Symphonies of Wind Instruments, had a reverence not unwelcome in a space still reeling from the unexpected death of Robert Harth. Although this piece had probably been planned long before, it was hard not to hear it as another elegy for the much-revered head of Carnegie Hall.

The mood became considerably less somber when Salerno-Sonnenberg took the stage, looking rock-star chic in glittering black pants and a black-and-white shirt. I heard her do this same piece about ten years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and am happy to report that she is still virtually unsurpassed in mining its lodes of mourning and franticness. If others have also mastered its astonishing heights Ė in the past year Iíve heard versions by Hilary Hahn, Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin Ė her feeling for the piece is quite clear. If nothing else, her sheer stance Ė legs wide apart, now rocking back and forth, now planted firmly onstage Ė announced all-out combat with one of the most formidable works a violinist can encounter. Whether in the skittering high spirits of the Scherzo, or the deeply meditative third-movement cadenza that then hurls itself into the raging final Burlesca, Salerno-Sonnenberg obviously loves this piece and attacked it with pit bull ferocity. What some classical listeners find off-putting, I think, is the way she makes her wrestling with the music so obvious, but this is one piece with which to wrestle unapologetically, and I find her volatile temperament a perfect mate.

From the bracing beginning of the Prokofiev, Vänskäís intensity consistently impressed, whether in the feverish string passages when Tybalt and Mercutio Fight or the tender Death of Juliet that ended the suite. As in the rest of the evening, I was struck over and over by the commitment of these fine musicians, having heard them last year in a towering Mahler Eighth Symphony. Again and again, hearing some of the United Statesí many orchestras, I think the term "The Big Five" should be finally and decisively consigned to music history. Certainly the Minnesota group plays as fearless as they come on the occasions Iíve heard them, so Iíll play the optimist and predict that Vänskä and the orchestra will make their new partnership an increasingly potent force. Not many orchestras would use this appearance to kick off an impressive European tour that includes a concert version of Bartókís Duke Bluebeardís Castle.

With three encores prepared, the enthusiastic crowd wanted them all: the March from Prokofievís Love for Three Oranges, followed by the Aragonaise from Massenetís Le Cid, and for the finale the traditional Finnish favorite, the Sakkijarven Polka, arranged with more than a little wit by Mr. Vänskä.

Bruce Hodges

Osmo Vänskä interview.




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