In the good old days, before "locked-out" was routinely prefixed to "musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra," that ensemble was central to the Twin Cities' celebration of the winter holidays. During Eiji Oue's tenure as music director (1995-2002), a typical December in Orchestra Hall boasted performances of "Messiah" and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony — the latter a Japanese holiday custom, imported by the conductor — not to mention, on the pops side, Doc Severinsen's cheery seasonal cocktail.
The lockout, now in its 15th month, has pulled the plug on such festivities for a second year — at least in Orchestra Hall, which increasingly resembles an expensively remodeled mausoleum.
But this past weekend, by way of compensation, the orchestra's musicians (in the latest of an ambitious series of self-produced concerts) installed themselves in the Minneapolis Convention Center Auditorium with an all-Tchaikovsky program that embraced the B-flat minor Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, and music from "The Nutcracker" (five numbers from the familiar suite, Op. 71a). Oue conducted — his first local concerts in a decade. And even a listener ambivalent toward Tchaikovsky had reason to cheer.
Though Oue's achievements as music director were quickly overshadowed by Osmo Vänskä's, there was much to applaud in the Oue era. Orchestra and conductor recorded prolifically; they toured Europe (twice) and Japan. Even more consequentially, Oue hired 31 musicians — about a third of the orchestra — over the course of seven seasons. The team with which Vänskä would ascend the heights was assembled largely by his Hiroshima-born, Bernstein-mentored predecessor.
Saturday's concert, complete with a costume change at intermission, showed Oue at his most flamboyant and theatrical. He is neither the most probing nor the most meticulous of conductors. Often he seems to mime the music rather than direct it. But the man exudes vitality — especially precious in dark times — and never forgets that his job is to commune with the audience as well as with his fellow musicians.
In the hands of soloist Jon Kimura Parker, the tired Tchaikovsky concerto became an event, its quicksilver mood changes and flying octaves reanimated by the pianist's infectious élan and gargantuan technique.
The concert's ending was carefully plotted. Leaving the dauntless orchestra to its own devices, Oue leapt from the stage, inviting listeners to clap along with the music. And finally he offered a time-stopping account of the "Prayer" from Tchaikovsky's "Mozartiana," conducting with a red rose.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.