The Minnesota Orchestra’s tour sendoff concert Tuesday night was full of surprises. And no, they didn’t include the orchestra’s spirited performance of that old warhorse, Beethoven’s Fifth -- now available as ringtones! -- or Finnish violin phenom Pekka Kuusisto’s frisky take on Sergei Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto.
After a couple curtain calls, Kuusisto responded to the obligatory standing-O with a Swedish folk song about immigrants who hoped to make a better life in the New World. Halfway through, conductor Osmo Vänskä emerged from the wings with clarinet in hand. He traded plaintive phrases with Kuusisto, who ended by whistling the melody as his plucked notes from his violin.
After intermission, Vänskä announced an addition to the program: A brief tribute to his friend and countryman, Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died just three weeks ago (and composed a couple of pieces for the orchestra). Then we heard the sound of swans calling as the orchestra launched into an excerpt of Rautavaara’s evocative Concerto for Birds and Orchestra.
The final surprise came in the lobby afterward, as fans sipped on bubbly. Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith sat in on piano with a rock ’n’ roll quartet drawn from the orchestra who played – no duh – Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” along with a handful of other sock-hop classics that got the crowd to dance (or at least rattle their jewelry).
Smith proved himself a credible sideman, rocking the 88s Jerry Lee Lewis-style with percussionist Brian Mount in the frontman role, clarinetist Tim Zavadil on lead guitar, bassist Matt Frischman on drums and Charles Block on bass.
“I’ve told people we need to lighten up and try to have fun,” Smith told the Star Tribune in an interview last winter. He lived up that promise as musicians partied into the night before a trip that will take them first to Vänskä's old stomping grounds in Lahti, Finland, then Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
The concert Aug. 24 at Amsterdam's fabled Concertgebouw will be broadcast live at 1 p.m. Central time by Minnesota Public Radio (99.5 FM or classicalmpr.org). Follow updates on the trip at the orchestra's website.