The 34th mostly annual edition of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest — 12 concerts over the next two weeks — got underway at Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning. An enthusiastic capacity crowd heard the festival's artistic director, Andrew Litton, conduct a program of standard fare by Rachmaninoff and Brahms along with a spry curtain-raiser by Dmitri Kabalevsky.
And for just a few brief, shining moments Thursday morning, one could raise memories of summers past when the pre-redesign plaza was festooned with booths selling food and drink, when this was one of the country's liveliest music festivals (certainly the one with the cleverest programming), when Sommerfest stretched for four weeks, offered at least 30 events and routinely drew more than 60,000 people, with thousands more hanging out on the plaza, listening to free concerts and eating Viennese pastry.
Call it the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Music Festival. To be sure, plagued by a lockout that ended in late January, the management had scarce time to assemble not just a summer festival but also the second half of the 2013-14 season. (The 2013 festival was canceled.)
But Sommerfest has been shriveling for some years and, with rare exception, like the chamber music concerts, the programming has blanded out. Seemingly gone is the idea that a summer festival shouldn't simply repeat works played — or that might be played — during the regular season. One suspects that Litton doesn't have a completely free hand in programming. His solo piano recital late Saturday night, for instance — a tribute to Oscar Peterson — sounds like fun.
Nonetheless, even a yawn-inducing program can be rewarding in performance — or exciting in the Thursday morning account of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 by the young Russian pianist Natasha Paremski, who made her orchestra debut on this occasion.
It's a monster work. With the exception of a few daredevils like Vladimir Horowitz, who practically owned the work for many years, any number of major pianists used to shy away from it as being too difficult.
Nowadays we hear it more often but seldom with such astonishing ease, superb control and lyrical sensitivity as Paremski provided. Where Horowitz was demonic and acid-like, Paremski was sweet, fast-paced and nuanced. The tender opening theme was stated simply and luminously. But there was ample power where needed, as in the first-movement cadenza, which built to a staggering climax.
Litton drew a wonderfully rich, atmospheric yet detailed backdrop from the orchestra. And the piece was done with no cuts, not even the ones that the composer himself sanctioned. (What a pity he and Paremski can't record the concerto together.)
Litton's Brahms, the Symphony No. 2, which took up the second half, was less distinctive. Aiming presumably for a thoughtfully ruminative reading of the first movement, this being Brahms' most elegiac symphony, his slow pacing seemed stodgy, though the big cello tune was warmly played. The remaining three movements, particularly the finale, carried more energy and drive.
As for the beleaguered festival itself, if it lives on into 2015 and beyond, let's hope that it takes on a touch of the sparkle and wit of its earlier years. The city's music lovers have always cherished Sommerfest — and they may do so again.
Michael Anthony writes about music.