Kernis work finds rich echo in Bach

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2011 - 9:25 PM

The Minnesota Orchestra is playing Pulitzer-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis' "Concerto with Echoes," along with Beethoven and Sibelius.

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Yevgeny Sudbin

Ninety-five years separate the births of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770) and Jean Sibelius (1865); another 95 separate those of Sibelius and Aaron Jay Kernis (1960). All three composers are represented on this week's gratifying Minnesota Orchestra program, led by Osmo Vänskä. And the works representing them -- Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, Sibelius' Second Symphony and Kernis' "Concerto with Echoes" -- are linked by more than chronological coincidence.

Premiered in 2009, the three-movement "Concerto with Echoes" was commissioned by New York's conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as part of a project to create companion pieces for each of Bach's six "Brandenburg" concertos. In choosing the last of the set, which derives distinctive color from the absence of violins, Kernis -- who directs the Minnesota Orchestra's acclaimed Composer Institute -- draws inspiration from Bach's initial bar, in which "spiraling solo violas, like identical twins, follow each other breathlessly through a hall of mirrors." (Kernis is the father of twins.)

The music teems with echoes, not only of Bach but of other musicians who have paid him homage. Though densely contrapuntal and intensely virtuosic, it never feels scholastic or showy (or neo-baroque, for that matter).

As with the Beethoven and Sibelius works on Thursday's program, the slow movement is the heart of Kernis' piece. One of his ripe lyric utterances, it seems fit company for Bach. The final aria, made memorable by a touch of reserve, is scarcely less impressive. The reduced orchestra sounded superb, the low strings relishing their moment in the sun.

Beethoven's mercurial Third Concerto is the latest installment in Yevgeny Sudbin's traversal, with Vänskä & Co., of Beethoven's five. (It's slated for recording in mid-June, as is the Sibelius.) From its gruff C-minor opening to its comic-opera close, the work, routinely overshadowed by Nos. 4 and 5, is among the finest of its genre.

Sudbin's manner is deeply cultivated, his pianistic hygiene immaculate. At times in the concerto's first movement, I longed for more granite, for a few sonic burrs, even for an approach more conventionally "Russian." But all was forgiven in the largo, where the soloist fully captured the music's quiet radiance.

No American composition marries national sentiment to individual aspiration as Sibelius' Second does for the Finns. Vänskä's 2009 account of this symphony was a landmark; his performance Thursday, despite a noisy audience -- must June sound like January? -- was finer still.

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.

  • MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA

    What: Osmo Vänskä leads music by Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 3, with soloist Yevgeny Sudbin), Sibelius (Symphony No. 2) and Aaron Jay Kernis ("Concerto with Echoes"). When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. Tues. Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls. Tickets: $22-$84. 612-371-5656 or www.minnesotaorchestra.org.

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