From the podium of Orchestra Hall on Friday, Osmo Vänskä dedicated this weekend's Minnesota Orchestra concerts to the people of Japan, thus breaking the near-silence maintained by classical-music organizations in the Twin Cities since the calamity of March 11.
Vänskä, who has conducted in Japan, also announced that proceeds from downloads of Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 5, which crowns the current program, will be donated to the American Red Cross' International Response Fund through April 17. The live recording of the symphony can be downloaded from the orchestra's website beginning on Monday.
The orchestra, led by Hiroshima native Eiji Oue, toured Japan in 1998; plans for a second tour of the country were canceled in the wake of Sept. 11.
The laudable dedication to the Japanese has been superimposed, somewhat incongruously, on a program with a rather different agenda. Dubbed "Nordic Landscapes," that program travels northern Europe from west to east, offering music by Norway's Edvard Grieg and Sweden's Torbjörn Lundquist before reaching Sibelius, Vänskä's fellow Finn, in its second half.
Grieg's "Sigurd Jorsalfar" is the not-quite-forgotten incidental music for a play, set in 12th century Norway, by a forgotten Nobel laureate. Of the three excerpts played, the protracted "Homage March" is best known. If it feels too triumphalist on this occasion, it is stirring nonetheless.
An environmentalist as well as a composer, Lundquist (1920-2000) wrote of his "Landscape" for tuba, strings and piano that it depicts "the ideal state that reigns in nature ... until the ecological balance is disturbed" -- a topic never more timely. The work asks the tuba to sing, and Steven Campbell, the orchestra's principal since 2005, makes it do just that. His cadenza is artful, his tone in the instrument's upper register especially warm. A bravura encore, one of Grieg's Norwegian Dances, ices the cake.
Sibelius was entranced by swans. "Today at ten to 11:00 I saw 16 swans," he wrote in his diary in 1915. "One of my greatest experiences. God, how beautiful!" In "The Swan of Tuonela" -- Tuonela is the Finnish Hades -- the swan's voice is the English horn; it is spellbindingly played by Marni Hougham, who surpasses her own 2002 recording. In the Fifth Symphony, which the BBC chose as the soundtrack for the moon landing, the axis of the final movement is a "swan hymn." In Vänskä's hands this music becomes overwhelming, at once surging and meditative -- a hymn to human tenacity and resilience.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.