Minnesota Orchestra puts on thought-provoking program of English works

  • Article by: MICHAEL ANTHONY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2014 - 9:25 PM
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A look at the renovated Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

Photo: Brian Peterson • Star Tribune file photo,

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Ostensibly, the war at the Minnesota Orchestra is over. Musicians, board members and management crawled out of their respective trenches last month, signed a contract, shook hands and went back to work.

Issues remain, however, big ones, like: Will Osmo Vänskä return as music director and, no less pressing, will Michael Henson stay on as president and CEO?

The way things had lined up by the end of the week, one option ruled out the other. This left a feeling of unease at Orchestra Hall, even though the concerts so far have been well attended, and audiences, as if starved for music, have been enthusiastic. And they’re getting used to what seems like a new hall.

The sound, though, is largely unchanged. Last week’s concerts, the first since the end of the lockout, offered the same kind of bright, clear — three-dimensional — sonic experience that the hall offered in its debut concerts in 1974. The only difference is that the orchestra back then, having performed for so long in dim halls like O’Shaughnessy and Northrop, was out of balance. The brasses overplayed, and they did so in the first years at Orchestra Hall, too. But that problem was eventually ­eradicated.

The main change in this $52 million project is the expansion of the lobby, an effort long overdue. Soon people will forget how cramped the old lobby was and how it was necessary to keep one’s elbows touching one’s ribs to avoid bumping someone — and perhaps knocking over a drink — during intermission. (It has been said — but with almost no solid scientific evidence — that you can tell orchestra patrons on Nicollet Mall from 50 feet away by whether — and how — they hold their elbows in.)

True, as some have suggested, the new space looks like the lobby of a German bank and a trifle chilly, but one guesses it will wear well. Soon it will seem like home.

The orchestra, a potentially unwieldy mix these days of full-timers and substitutes, played respectably last weekend under the baton of the revered Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and continued in the same vein Friday night with the French conductor Yan ­Pascal Tortelier presiding.

The program was thought-provoking. Here were two major English works composed just a few years apart but with radically different character: Edward Elgar’s introverted and melancholy Cello Concerto in E minor, completed in 1919, and Gustav Holst’s high-calorie and extroverted set of tone poems, “The Planets,” finished just two years earlier.

Intriguing though the pairing was, it caused a problem. We tend to perceive music in a context, so hearing the Elgar first, especially in so sensitive a performance as that given by the cellist Steven Isserlis, made “The Planets,” coming after intermission, seem even more loud and vulgar than it usually does, something like heavy-metal rock for ­orchestra.

Drawing excellent playing from the horns, Tortelier let the robust movements, “Mars” and “Jupiter,” play out full blast — no subtleties necessary — while getting a wonderfully glassy sound from the women of the Minnesota Chorale, who (singing in the third tier hallway) delivered the tricky final measures, “morendo” (“dying away”), with perfect timing.

For his part, Isserlis had the measure of all the moods of the Elgar concerto, from the desolate sadness of the first movement to the shadow-filled jubilation of the finale.

 

Michael Anthony writes about music.

 

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  • Steven Isserlis

  • MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA

    What: Music of Holst (“The Planets”) and Elgar (Cello Concerto), with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, cellist Steven Isserlis and women of the Minnesota Chorale.

    When: 8 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

    Tickets: $20-$80, 612-371-5656, minnesotaorchestra.org. Includes free copy of orchestra’s recording on CD of Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 1 and 4.

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