The Minnesota Orchestra is presenting a rarity in the opening concerts of its subscription season this week: a work by Johann Sebastian Bach.
This might seem odd. Surely Bach's music is everywhere — as background in films and TV commercials, as foreground on radio, on countless recordings and in concerts of all types. True enough, but symphony orchestras, by and large, have handed over the Bach franchise, along with the keys to the Vivaldi and Telemann enterprises, to the early-music specialists who traffic in snappy tempos and lucid textures delivered on period instruments that have learned increasingly to stay in tune.
Small orchestras, on the other hand, still lay some claim to the Baroque repertoire, since their size is closer to the ensembles of Bach's day. Paul McCreesh, an early-music expert, will conduct the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and a small chorus in performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Ordway Concert Hall next weekend.
The Minnesota Orchestra's return to Bach Country is a worthy if less bold venture. Three of the six Brandenburg Concertos will be played this season, leaving the remaining three for 2016-17. The Brandenburg No. 2 served as curtain-raiser for the concert Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall.
Except for the fact that the instruments onstage were of the modern variety, the performance reflected current notions of 18th century style. The ensemble was relatively small — 15 or so players. Concertmaster Erin Keefe served as "leader," meaning conductor in the Baroque use of the term, and she was joined by three other expert soloists: flutist Adam Kuenzel, oboist John Snow and trumpeter Douglas C. Carlsen.
The playing was fast and nimble but never seemed rushed. Lines and phrases were molded with a subtle dynamic nuance that likely wouldn't have been heard in a performance of this work 30 or 40 years ago when "terraced" — that is, unvarying — dynamics were in vogue. (Bach probably would have thrown an inkwell at some of the earliest early-music players.) As always in this concerto, the trumpet dominated the sound. The orchestra's former music director Neville Marriner had the best solution to this problem. For his recording, he substituted a horn tuned a fifth lower.
For the rest of the program — Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs and Mahler's Symphony No. 4 — the soloist was the impressive and charismatic young American soprano Katie Van Kooten. With her silvery tone and deep commitment to the texts of the Strauss songs, Van Kooten, with the careful collaboration of Osmo Vänskä at the podium, created a mood of exalted lyricism in songs that progress from joy at awakening spring to twilight resignation before the approach of death.
Similarly, the singer's reading of the Mahler songs in the fourth movement — a child's picture of paradise — caught perfectly the required aura of simplicity and innocence through the medium of superbly focused singing.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.