The Minnesota Orchestra played an all-Tchaikovsky concert at Ted Mann Hall Friday night.
Longtime fans of the Minnesota Orchestra's 32-year-old Sommerfest, once a bustling and moderately edgy affair, can only sigh at this year's offerings. The Good Times, it would seem, are behind us, along with our temperate summers.
The festival's congenial chamber-music evenings, which in past seasons showcased the underappreciated gifts of many orchestra members, have vanished without a trace. Pops concerts now loom large. And the remaining "classical" programs, with the happy exception of the operatic finale (Verdi's "Rigoletto"), are built around the most hackneyed of moniker-toting symphonies as if these alone can be marketed successfully.
It was the "Pathétique," Tchaikovsky's last symphony, that capped the orchestra's all-Tchaikovsky concert Friday at the University of Minnesota's Ted Mann Hall. The evening would have been more satisfying had it been less binge-like; the combination of the oft-played symphony and the still more familiar "First Piano Concerto" can tax the stamina of all but the Russian composer's most indiscriminate admirers. (At least we were spared a reprise of the "1812 Overture"!)
Heard here as recently as February, the "Pathétique" can become mired in lugubriousness; it can also rise to the stature of what one writer calls "the Russian 'Eroica'." Litton and the orchestra strove for the latter pole and sometimes reached it. For once the middle movements were not slighted. First-chair players contributed handsomely; there may be no sound more doleful than that of John Miller's bassoon. Friday's performance was dedicated to photographer Ann Marsden, who died July 8.
Tchaikovsky once vowed never to write a piano concerto; he would have done well to keep his pledge. His B-flat minor Concerto -- the sort of commodified warhorse that critics delight in deploring -- contains moments of indisputable poetry and pages of unmitigated bombast. Danny Driver, the superb English pianist imported to play it, did his considerable best to minimize its banalities, much as his countryman Stephen Hough did in his 2009 Minnesota recording with Osmo Vänskä. But the piece, to my mind, is interminable.
Friday's concert opened with the color-soaked "Capriccio Italien," a vividly scored fantasia on Italian folk tunes, not a bar too long. Played dashingly by Litton and the orchestra, it was easily the best thing on the program.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.