With Orchestra Hall newly wrapped in images of its future self, with memories of August's European jaunt still fresh and with a rousing, audience-assisted rendition of the national anthem, the Minnesota Orchestra Thursday began its 108th season -- its eighth under the leadership of Osmo Vänskä.
The center of attention, in a program bookended by Brahms and Carl Maria von Weber, was the world premiere of "Towards the Horizon," the Second Cello Concerto by the eminent Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, who turns 82 on Oct. 9. Commissioned by the orchestra, the concerto is dedicated to Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk, who was to have given this week's performances with Vänskä. But Mørk has been sidelined by Lyme disease, and Polish-born, Baltimore-trained Arek Tesarczyk, who joined the orchestra's cello section in 2004, has taken his place.
Rautavaara (who in the mid-'50s studied in the United States on a grant awarded to him by the elderly Sibelius) has wandered the post-World War II stylistic map. Serialism, post-modernism, neo-romanticism -- all have fed his imagination. His 1968 Cello Concerto (No. 1, as we must now call it) ends with a "Gershwinian samba." Yet the composer also acknowledges a "taste for eternity," and a vein of mysticism runs through his work.
"Towards the Horizon" won't enjoy the popularity of Rautavaara's Seventh Symphony or his "Cantus Arcticus." The music never hurries. Rhythmic interest is slight, harmonic interest substantial: The concerto has a dissonant lushness, at times suggesting a Hollywood film score that's taken an odd turn.
Tesarczyk, wholly secure, proves a strong advocate for the composer's meandering lyricism, making something incantatory of the high tessitura in the three "horizon" sections.
Brahms' expansive Second Symphony, written beside an Austrian lake, is routinely described as his sunniest. But this music knows darkness as well as light, carrying the listener from melancholy -- especially in the first two movements, Brahms the depressive is never far away -- through not-quite-cloudless serenity, to defiant jubilation.
Thursday's account was stupendous, liberally studded with goose-bump moments. Vänskä finds nuggets of rhythmic life that elude most conductors. Tempos have an inner elasticity; the music breathes in most of the places I want it to. The orchestra is superbly balanced, its sound neither too plush nor too lean. And the autumnal coda of the opening Allegro -- Brahms at his finest -- is ecstatic.
Weber's "Oberon" Overture was the zesty starter, sparkling and atmospheric.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.