Stanislaw Skrowaczewski's appointment book would flatten many men half his age. At 86, he is principal guest conductor of the German Radio Philharmonic, with which he has recorded extensively. In March he concludes a three-year engagement as principal conductor of Tokyo's Yomiuri Nippon Symphony. He remains conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, which he has led in each of the past 50 seasons. And amid all this activity, he has produced a series of consequential compositions -- a rarity in an age of musical hyper-specialization.
It is the hyphenated Skrowaczewski, the composer-conductor, who opens this week's Minnesota Orchestra program. Co-commissioned by the orchestra and eight other ensembles, his "Music for Winds" is a symphony without strings, in the no-longer-modish-but-still-viable European modernist style he has made his own. In the program notes, the composer sounds coy: "The listener may find the character or tone of the piece to be sad, mysterious or even tragic. This could be my own reaction to the state of our world, in which great art is slowly disappearing and being replaced by superficial 'semi-culture.' "
As I hear it, the work is an aggrieved indictment of contemporary culture -- combative, sardonic and, at the end, unabashedly funereal, with scattered angry cries and wounded murmurings. Such plaints, of course, are nothing new -- which is not to say they are unfounded. But can they serve as the basis of a cogent piece?
In Skrowaczewski's hands, perhaps they can. "Music for Winds" tries to exemplify the values of the high culture whose eclipse it mourns. Though not for every taste, it deserves a hearing.
Gina DiBello, the orchestra's principal second violin since 2008, is all of 27; her glowing account of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 seems to dent Skrowaczewski's thesis. She approaches the work not as an egoistic soloist but as a chamber musician: refined, mellow-toned, never exhibitionist. In the Adagio, one of Mozart's great proto-romantic slow movements, she finds an exquisite flow. Her sotto voce playing is bewitching; her cadenzas err on the side of brevity.
Brahms' anti-heroic Third Symphony, which closes the program, traces a path from turbulence to resignation; it resonates deeply with "Music for Winds." Thursday's performance lost its way for a moment in the second movement and felt a bit distracted in the third. But the outer movements were masterful, offering no false comfort.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.