Among the happy things that we in the Twin Cities owe to Osmo Vänskä, our growing familiarity with the music of Kalevi Aho is not the least. Aho was named composer in residence of Finland's Lahti Symphony during Vänskä's tenure as its music director; the conductor has continued to champion his colleague's work since coming to Minnesota. And if the prolific Aho -- 15 symphonies and counting -- won't find his way onto lists of the 10 best composers, he always seems to have something worth saying.
Aho, 61, has written concertos for virtuosic performers on more than a dozen instruments, even the contrabassoon; a clarinet concerto was inevitable. Commissioned by Martin Fröst, a charismatic Swede, the work, characteristically demanding, was unveiled in London in 2006, with Vänskä, no mean clarinetist, on the podium. Fröst (in his local debut) and Vänskä are reunited this week in Orchestra Hall for the concerto's American premiere. It's a tour de force for all concerned.
In five connected movements, the half-hour piece spans an enormous emotional range; built on contrasts, it pits ferocious intensity, which peaks in the scherzo-like third movement, against a melancholy soulfulness, predominant in movements 4 and 5 (marked "Sad" and "Mysterious" respectively). Its many display elements -- dispatched by Fröst with jaw-dropping facility and physicality -- are not ends in themselves but are fully integrated into the musical argument.
Fröst can rattle the ceiling but is most remarkable in quiet moments. And his klezmer encore, with the orchestra in hot pursuit, is worth the ticket price.
Written for Chicago (where it met with bewilderment), Sergei Prokofiev's absurdist opera "The Love for Three Oranges" teems with clueless princes, thirsty maidens and noble monsters. (Citrus growers vied for sponsorship rights.) The composer's six-movement Suite (1923) cherry-picks the opera's tastiest music, including the popular March. Vänskä and the orchestra play it with acerbity and punch, without quite convincing me that it belongs on a program with Aho and Brahms.
Having cheered Vänskä's account of Brahms' Second Symphony last September, I've been impatient for the craggy Fourth -- and was not disappointed. I found the conductor's phrasing of the opening bars a bit fussy; the first movement's climax might have been even more turbulent. But from the Andante on, his was as gripping a performance as I've heard in more than four decades of helpless addiction to this tragic, great-hearted music.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.