It’s been a little more than two years since young conductor Roderick Cox first appeared with the Minnesota Orchestra. And already he has graduated from assistant to associate conductor status. His subscription concert debut at Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning made it easy to see why.
Taking a relaxed, leisurely approach to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Cox immediately drew playing of considerable sensual allure and sophistication from the orchestra. Clearly relishing the sounds his players were making, his minimal baton gestures allowed plenty of leeway for self-expression, his left arm tracing elegant arcs of emotion over the violin section, in particular.
Cox’s ability to wring interesting detail from pieces that are probably overly familiar to regular concertgoers was evident again in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Working with excellent soloist Joyce Yang, Cox fashioned a richly characterized interpretation, avoiding the mushy sentimentality that often passes for expressiveness in Rachmaninoff’s music.
There was, crucially, no rushing or brash excitability. Showing a welcome readiness to apply subtle tempo variations, Cox eked out subtleties of mood and motivation often glossed over in the barnstorming finale.
Yang played the solo part with a pleasingly restrained sense of poetry and a crystalline tonal quality, though there was no doubting the leonine power of her technique at major climaxes. Her encore — Earl Wild’s Lisztian take on Gershwin’s song “The Man I Love” — glittered alluringly, the glissando payoff impishly executed.
Another well-ridden warhorse, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, occupied the second half of the concert. Conducting without a score, Cox visibly ramped up the physicality of his gestures, in a passionate though patiently constructed traversal of the lengthy opening movement.
The Andantino had warmth, whimsy and tasteful woodwind solos, while the pizzicato playing of the strings in the Scherzo was brilliantly detailed and full of playful humor.
The explosive finale went off like a rocket, with a thrillingly precise ensemble and a propulsive, though never frantic sense of forward movement. Cox cunningly kept one final acceleration for the coda, to which the players responded in blistering fashion.
For Cox, this was undoubtedly a highly auspicious subscription concert debut. He happens to be African-American in a profession long dominated by white men, where women have only recently made gains.
Cox will be in the vanguard. He is a highly talented conductor, and his association with the Minnesota Orchestra has the potential to be a long one.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.