Orchestras seek a foolproof formula for the perfect season opener. The program, they feel, should send a message: “Join us, we’re chic and up-to-date.” Or, conversely: “Come home with us and we’ll reminisce about the old days.”
Osmo Vänskä offered his own sensible, nicely balanced program to kick off the Minnesota Orchestra’s 115th season: four varied, short, mostly familiar pieces surrounding the U.S. premiere of a brand-new violin concerto (commissioned with three other orchestras). If there was a message, it was: “We honor the past but live in the present. Trust us.”
It helped that the concerto, played just before intermission Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall, was a work of rare mystery and beauty. It’s the kind of music that when it stops — and it does so rather abruptly — you want it to keep going.
The composer, 63-year-old Anders Hillborg, who attended the performance, is probably the leading light in Swedish music today. Renée Fleming sang his song cycle “The Strand Settings” at Orchestra Hall in 2014. Looking ahead to November, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Hillborg’s “Bach Materia,” a work for solo violin and strings.
Hillborg is often characterized as an eclectic, but that term is no longer useful since most composers today are eclectic. They draw on many influences: pop music, electronic sounds, music of the distant past — the Renaissance, in Hillborg’s case.
The softer and gentler of the two contrasting elements that alternate in this 25-minute, single-movement concerto evokes the “mystical minimalism” of recent decades by composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. The music floats, seeking no particular direction. Time seems to stop. The music becomes a globe slowly turning on its axis, which makes the solo violin a nervous asteroid attracted to and repelled by the globe. These moments of intense lyricism, suggesting eternity, alternate with vigorous, lusty, up-tempo, rock-influenced passages in the lower strings — mind vs. body.
Canadian violinist James Ehnes was the adroit — really, quite brilliant — soloist. Vänskä conducted with his customary vigor and care for detail. Composer, conductor and soloist embraced warmly during the enthusiastic applause at the end.
The other works — by Stravinsky, Berlioz, Ravel and John Adams — received committed, polished performances. Michael Gast brought a sweet nobility to the horn solo in Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess,” which people of a certain age will recognize as the pop song “The Lamp Is Low.” Vänskä’s reading of the piece, full of subtleties, made it seem fresh and new.
The three season-opening concerts are dedicated to conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the orchestra’s former music director who died in February at 93.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.