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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Haydn: Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major, The Philosopher, Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Minnesota Orchestra, Markus Stenz, conductor, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 13 May, 2005 (BH)

In an impressive evening with the Minnesota Orchestra, Markus Stenz demonstrated why the Cologne Opera and Gürzenich Orchestra are lucky to have him. Usually the Mahler stands on its own, but Stenz prefaced it with the fifteen-minute Haydn, which I only heard for the first time about a year ago. While perhaps a trifle to some, I’d demur and call it “charming,” despite the probability that most ears and eyes were focused on the sprawling 75 minutes after intermission. The piece is noteworthy for being Haydn’s sole symphony using English horns, rather than oboes, and the Minnesota woodwind players produced a beautifully dark, silvery sound. Using a reduced ensemble, Stenz got clean, light playing from the orchestra, and made the piece seem over almost too quickly.

The chillingly effective Mahler Sixth showed decisively that the Minnesota musicians should be mentioned more often when speaking of the best ensembles in the country. I’ll go on record once again as being weary of the so-called “big five” characterization of the country’s orchestras; let’s just smash that to bits once and for all. This relentless, and relentlessly difficult score seemed to hold no terrors for anyone here; a few minor bobbles only emphasized the humanity behind the treacherous pitfalls on each page. Stenz took a swift approach overall, which is probably the best way to sell the Sixth to most listeners. Even the great Andante (following the Scherzo in these performances) flowed with purposeful momentum, never hesitating for a minute.

The first movement had a spicy rigor, with Stenz encouraging the musicians to make some exquisitely Mahlerian squalls, acknowledging that not every moment here needs to be a perfectly honed and “beautiful” in the traditional sense. The headlong rush at the end of the first movement was so well done that when the orchestra’s braying was suddenly silenced, a few wisps of applause broke out here and there. The Scherzo had an appealing brittleness, with the xylophone adding a caustic edge to the other instruments. If anything, Stenz made this sound closer to Ravel’s La Valse than other performances I can recall.

In the final half-hour movement, Stenz used three hammer blows rather than two, and although a knowledgeable friend has most often heard three, I’ve mostly heard just two. I don’t have particular feelings either way, but for the record, the second one was the loudest of the three, with the third less so, as if life were being slowly leached out during the final one. The orchestra excelled throughout, with particular praise for the Minnesota brass, especially principal trumpet Manuel Laureano. Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis was sweetly effective in her brief but crucial solos, and the contributions of Kathy Kienzle, principal harp, provided some of the evening’s best moments. The percussion section, seen running offstage and then sneaking back on with precise regularity, made the most of the plentiful cowbells clanking in the distance. Overall, this was a powerfully lean and effective Sixth that not only showed the Minnesotans at their best but Stenz as well, whose cool-headed guidance spoke for itself in the hard-hitting results.

It must be said, too, that the capacity Minnesota audience was exemplary in its decorum, and could show a few things to say, some of the listless, restless patrons who seem to think Lincoln Center is more akin to an online chat room. Not once – not one single time during the entire evening – did a mobile phone go off, and the audience was blessedly cough and fidget-free, which I’m sorry to add, is becoming increasingly rare in even the most prestigious venues. Residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul clearly care – a lot – about the great music flowing like water right in their own backyard.

Bruce Hodges



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