Osmo Vänskä spoke not a word from the podium in the course of his concert Friday with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra at the Minneapolis Convention Center -- a concert arranged to mark their recent Grammy nomination in the hotly contested "Best Orchestral Performance" category.

He didn't have to. He had the music of Jean Sibelius -- not only the two great symphonies (Nos. 2 and 5) on the nominated disc but also the patriotic "Finlandia," played as an encore -- to speak for him. And few concertgoers can have left the hall unaware of what was said.

Hosted by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and philanthropist Judy Dayton (who, with her late husband Kenneth Dayton, has long been the Minnesota Orchestra's most generous benefactor), Friday's concert reunited Vänskä, for the first time since July, with the remarkable band he's built over the past decade.

The event was billed as a chance for people caught up in the contentious labor dispute that has idled the orchestra since Oct. 1 to step back and celebrate the group's accomplishments. Signs outside the auditorium asked attendees to eschew buttons, T-shirts and similar displays of partisanship. Most complied.

But the organizers seem to have reckoned without "Finlandia" -- potent, incendiary music that vividly evokes a struggle for freedom. In Vänskä's turbocharged account -- the most rousing I've ever heard -- the piece became a political act, dispelling any lingering questions as to the conductor's impartiality. The crowd, overwhelmingly pro-musician, loved it.

But forget the politics. And forget the Grammy -- though it would be sweet if the orchestra, which made its first recording in 1924, finally won one. What was most impressive Friday was the music-making itself.

Vänskä doesn't perform Sibelius' deeply idiosyncratic symphonies so much as live them. The conductor shuns the late-romantic, climax-in-every-bar rhetoric often superimposed on these scores; in its place is an uncanny control of musical tension. Rhythms are exact but never pedantic; gear-shifts feel organic. Sonorities are lean and unblended; silences are telling.

I was prepared for a hint of rustiness in the orchestra, forgivable after four months of near-inactivity. But the musicians played as if electrified; the Second Symphony, in particular, seemed more passionate than the recorded version. John Snow's oboe and Jason Arkis' timpani were especially eloquent; the brass had a terrific night.

Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.