The Minnesota Orchestra was directed by the first woman to serve as director of a major U.S. orchestra.
Since she last led the Minnesota Orchestra, Marin Alsop has become the first woman to serve as music director of a major U.S. orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony, where her contract now runs to 2015). She's received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (aka "genius award"). She's recorded Brahms' symphonies, and much else, for the Naxos label. And next year she begins her tenure as music director of the State Symphony of São Paulo, Brazil. More than any other woman conductor, she's dented the ceiling of a profession whose practitioners are overwhelmingly male.
Alsop's rather old-fashioned, mostly Brahms program opens with the popular "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" and closes with the elusive, anti-monumental Third Symphony. Between these sturdy pillars comes Antonín Dvorak's melodious (if somewhat rambling) Violin Concerto, capably played by Jonathan Magness, the orchestra's associate principal second violin.
The variations, on a chorale-like tune no longer thought to be by Haydn, are essentially character pieces, and Alsop tellingly underlined their individuality: the fourth darkly deliberate, the fifth deliciously danceable, the eighth ghostly.
At the same time, she made the piece feel more integrated than it sometimes does -- a neat trick. Balances between strings and winds, a bit problematic in the symphony, were impeccable, with the band at its most pointed and transparent.
Magness, playing from memory, brought reliable intonation and alluring tone to the folk-infused Dvorak. What I missed was the incisiveness, the rhapsodic intensity, the narrative pressure of a more communicative performer. A concern for accuracy seemed to trump the music's shape and thrust.
Brahms' shortest symphony, the Third, is also his most densely argued -- its immediate success discomfited the irascible composer -- and by far the hardest to play. Friday's athletic, rhythmically supple performance, best in the more tumultuous sections of the outer movements, got a great many things right, yet seemed a little less than the sum of its parts.
A well-chosen encore -- Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 21, in Dvorak's orchestration -- capped the evening with a burst of energy.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.