Occasion was layered atop occasion Friday as “The Star-Spangled Banner” (in an arrangement by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the evening’s stellar conductor) rang out in Orchestra Hall.
It was the first performance by the Minnesota Orchestra, under that name, since a concert rendition of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in July 2012, the first since a new contract ended the destructive, 16-month lockout of musicians, the first since the group’s latest recording of two Sibelius symphonies won a Grammy, the first since Osmo Vänskä’s resignation.
It marked the formal reopening of the 1974 hall, renovated at a cost of $50 million. And it paid homage to Skrowaczewski, the orchestra’s beloved conductor laureate, whose 90th birthday will be belatedly celebrated with a Feb. 23 concert at — where else? — Orchestra Hall.
(The Polish-born maestro, a moral beacon during the lockout, now has the distinction of having opened the same hall twice, with the same music: his own unabashed orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor).
There was no soloist Friday; the orchestra, fittingly, was the focus of attention. Remarks by principal trombonist Douglas Wright and board Chairman Gordon Sprenger were brief and conciliatory. (To cries from the hall to “Bring back Osmo,” Sprenger replied: “We are addressing that.”)
The remodeled hall, rich in amenities, lives up to its advance billing. Lobbies are spacious; restrooms have proliferated; seats are wider (reflecting the growth of the American torso since 1974); people with disabilities are suitably accommodated.
All this would matter little if the auditorium’s legendary acoustics — part of this orchestra’s identity — had been compromised. Fear not: They are intact. In row 21, at least, the sound was as vivid and enveloping as ever — clean but not clinical, with vibrant, tangible bass and a slight, familiar stridency afflicting the brass. Sonically, the hall remains a gem.
But halls don’t make music, musicians do. And on Friday, defying the cold, the musicians played unstintingly in an all-German, insistently heroic program that included Strauss’ swashbuckling “Don Juan” (a revealing orchestral report card) and Beethoven’s massive yet mercurial “Eroica” Symphony (which was given an old-fashioned, unfailingly musical reading).
If they didn’t quite sound like the highflying band of two years ago — the band that won the Grammy — that was inevitable, particularly when 33 of the 83 musicians on stage were substitutes. (The contingent of subs will shrink as permanent members of the ensemble, currently engaged elsewhere, return to Minneapolis.)
One shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions from a single concert, especially when it comes after a long and dispiriting hiatus.
Still, it seems clear that a period of concentrated “verk, verk, verk” (in Vänskä’s much-quoted phrase) is needed if this proud but wounded orchestra is to regain its former glory.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.