Sex, drugs, debauchery, sleaze, financial disarray, dementia: This is not the content of your average Minnesota Orchestra concert.
Opera, to be sure, favors decadent themes, and none more so than “Powder Her Face,” the bawdy chamber opera by Thomas Ades that was premiered in England in 1995 when Ades was just 24. Some will remember that Ades, who has since become the leading English composer of his generation, was composer-in-residence for the 1998 edition of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest during those enterprising years when Jeffrey Tate was masterminding the festival.
“Powder Her Face” tells the — more or less — true story of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, a wild woman who eventually lost it all and died in 1993 at the age of 80 after a fall in a nursing home.
Some years after the opera’s premiere, the Cleveland Orchestra commissioned an orchestral suite based on the opera, and it is this suite — Dances from “Powder Her Face,” as it is titled — that opened the concert Thursday morning with Hugh Wolff presiding at the podium.
The result is extravagant, clever music — almost too clever — with a jumbo of jazzy fox trots, tangos and marches, a kind of off-kilter razzmatazz that gives the listener the vertiginous feeling of walking down a stairway backward while balancing a tray of martinis high in the air. Under Wolff’s careful guidance, the orchestra gave this music the sort of wham-bam-socko performance it needs.
Wolff, the former music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, is a gifted conductor who should be seen here more often. He continued the program with works by Bartok and Mendelssohn.
Karen Gomyo, a virtuoso violinist born in Tokyo and raised in Montreal, was the impressive soloist in Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
Gomyo’s fluent technique and compact but expressive tone brought this vast, challenging work to life. The playing had a lyrical intensity and an assurance that revealed the nobility and spaciousness of the score. One was left breathless after her daredevil account of the first-movement cadenza.
Wolff devoted the second half to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scottish,” marshaling an expertly played, warmhearted performance with clear textures and firmly drawn tempos that evoked a welcome sense of mystery during the slow movement.
Just after intermission, principal trombone R. Douglas Wright spoke briefly to the audience about the orchestra’s revered conductor laureate, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who died this week at 93. Sharing poignant memories, Wright recalled the conductor’s last performances with the orchestra, in October. In failing health and knowing that this was probably his farewell to the orchestra, Skrowaczewski thanked the musicians “for keeping me alive” these past few years.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.