Fresh from its annual sojourn in Carnegie Hall (where New York Times critic James Oestreich found it "sounding like one of America's finest"), the Minnesota Orchestra, led by Osmo Vänskä, was back on home turf Thursday, offering music, partly sea-themed, from the first half of the 20th century. Works by Britten, Sibelius and Debussy shared the honors in a program that looked conventional enough on paper but proved scintillating in performance.
Britten's 1945 opera "Peter Grimes" was his breakthrough piece. Played out against the backdrop of the sea's pitiless grandeur, it paints a tormented fisherman hounded to his death by the uncaring denizens of an English coastal village much like Britten's own. In a deft bit of marketing, the composer shaped a concert suite from the work's vivid orchestral interludes; this music has introduced "Grimes" to many listeners who will never encounter it in an opera house.
Vänskä's performance of the "Four Sea Interludes," atmospheric and theatrical, was exemplary. The shimmering "Dawn," which owes a debt to Debussy, was keenly affecting, "Moonlight" even more so.
The Violin Concerto occupied Sibelius intermittently from 1902 to 1905. (The heavy-drinking composer, who withdrew the work after its initial performance, had to be dragged from Helsinki's bars to see it through.) Slow to gain traction, the concerto is now standard fare: no ambitious violinist can avoid it.
Few, however, can play it with the depth and daring of Midori. The diminutive Japanese-American has won praise in recent years for her outreach and teaching. But she is, above all, a consummate violinist -- one who has completely rethought the Sibelius since her somewhat disappointing recording 15 years ago, with breathtaking results. From her first entry, barely whispered, she internalizes the concerto's drama, turning pyrotechnics into psychology. Vänskä and the band, fiery and subdued by turns, are stellar partners. The Adagio is bliss.
Debussy's prismatic "La mer" (The Sea) has been called "the best symphony ever written by a Frenchman." Thanks to Arturo Toscanini and other baton virtuosos, it has long been enthroned as a brightly colored orchestral showpiece. But Vänskä knows that the composer had something quite different in mind. The conductor's reading Thursday, muscular yet meticulous, nodded to the Toscanini tradition but also embraced elements of the leaner, more delicate approach captured on early Parisian recordings. More Debussy, s'il vous plait!