Three of the four works on this week's Minnesota Orchestra program, led with seemingly inexhaustible energy by Osmo Vänskä, could be categorized as display pieces for virtuoso orchestra -- which makes one all the more grateful for the fourth: a captivating F-minor Clarinet Concerto, with Burt Hara, the superlative soloist, by the unsung Bernhard Henrik Crusell, a younger contemporary of Beethoven.
(Was Crusell Vänskä's doppelgänger? Or is it the other way around? A Finn, he was a clarinetist, conductor and composer--Vänskä's bio in a nutshell.)
Nineteenth-century reviewers lavished praise on Crusell's tone and his pianissimo; they would say the same about Hara's. The orchestra's principal since 1987, Hara is new to Crusell's concerto, yet on Thursday they sounded like old friends. His tone lustrous across the registers of his instrument, Hara was best in the andante's songful pastoral, though the opening allegro, spacious and urgent, wasn't far behind. But why so condensed a cadenza?
Crusell was the most important Finnish composer before Sibelius; Kalevi Aho may well be the most important since. His career owes much to the steadfast advocacy of Vänskä, who over two decades has premiered some 20 of his scores. "Minea," commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and unveiled this week, is the latest of these.
Aho, 60, is not given to mere display; his 14 symphonies, some marked by Bruckner-like slow movements, are deeply serious. Vänskä asked him for a 20-minute piece that would show off the capabilities of the ensemble, and Aho has obliged with a propulsive, vaguely disquieting opus that integrates African, Arab and South Asian traditions and includes "cameos" for nearly every orchestral section. Described by its composer (who was in the house Thursday) as "a single, huge accelerando and crescendo," "Minea" skillfully exploits the full firepower of the symphony orchestra, which is to say that, at its summit, it is jet-engine loud. Hear it by all means, but bring earplugs for the climax.
A symphonic poem ("The Song of the Nightingale") extracted from an early opera by Stravinsky and the familiar, patchwork Suite from Richard Strauss' nearly contemporaneous "Der Rosenkavalier" completed the evening's trio of showpieces. Beside Aho, they seemed a bit tame. Vänskä led both with dynamism and exactitude; Stravinsky's proprietary textures, in particular, were realized with startling clarity. The musicians played dauntlessly. But does so much orchestral glitter really serve the musicians' interests, or their audience's?
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.