A century ago, the Minneapolis Symphony was thought of as the "travelingest" orchestra in the world. The "orchestra on wheels," as it was known, hit the road for six weeks or more every spring, playing Brahms and Schubert in corn palaces, high schools, tents, cattle barns and gymnasiums throughout the Midwest and beyond, and actually made money touring.
It's different now. Travel costs have gone through the roof, and tours must be subsidized. The major orchestras mostly stay at home. But the Minneapolis Symphony — now the Minnesota Orchestra — retains its wanderlust.
With Osmo Vänskä at the podium and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto as soloist, the orchestra will depart for Europe this week on a four-country tour that will include festivals in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Copenhagen in addition to a concert Sunday in Lahti, Finland, where Vänskä served as chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony. This will be his fifth European tour with the orchestra.
The tour program, previewed Tuesday to a capacity audience at Orchestra Hall, could be called bold. Rhapsodies for Orchestra by American composer Steven Stucky served as the curtain-raiser and was followed by Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. Neither is a surprise. Visiting orchestras usually play something from their homeland, especially if it's short, and Stucky, who died last February, was a revered figure in American music. And the Prokofiev is a beguiling work that isn't played too often.
It's the second half that's bold: Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 alternating on tour with the same composer's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," the two most famous — and familiar — symphonies ever written. Is this tantamount to a major theater troupe touring with "Our Town"? Will this be thought a bland choice?
Perhaps not. Vanska's recordings of the Beethoven symphonies with this orchestra have been justly praised. The performance Tuesday served as a reminder of how fresh and superbly played those recordings are, especially the 5th. The clarity — even at the first movement's super-fast tempo — the wide dynamic range, the expressive Andante movement, the perfectly gauged transition to the finale, all this made for an exciting and illuminating performance.
Kuuisto's Prokofiev was less illuminating. The elfin violinist (whose brother, Jaakko, was concertmaster in Lahti during Vanska's last years there) adopted an airy touch, limp attacks and an almost vibrato-free tone in the first two movements, an approach that undercut the work's intense lyricism. If the attempt was to underline the music's occasionally ironic flavor, it seemed instead cavalier and blasé.
Kuusisto's encore, a gentle, mournful folk tune, was more engaging, especially when Vänskä walked onstage playing the song on clarinet, the two of them improvising soulfully.
Stucky's brightly orchestrated Rhapsodies acted as a colorful overture to the evening.
As a last-minute addition, just after intermission, Vänskä paid tribute to his friend and colleague Einojuhani Rautavaara, the great Finnish composer who died July 27 at 87, by conducting "Swans Migrating," a movement from Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.