Perhaps it’s only an illusion that the Minnesota Orchestra’s programs get bolder and more interesting in the spring, as the season winds down. Illusion or not, the program given twice at Orchestra Hall this weekend offered a rarely achieved balance of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar.
There was a recent work by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts, director of the orchestra’s annual Composer Institute, along with the enigmatic and seldom-heard Symphony No. 6 by Carl Nielsen. And just after intermission Friday night, there was an impressive performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the orchestra’s concertmaster, Erin Keefe, as soloist.
Born in Massachusetts 35 years ago, Keefe became concertmaster in 2011, replacing Jorja Fleezanis, a popular figure here who had taken a teaching position at the University of Indiana. Keefe appears to have developed a following, too. There was sustained applause as she walked onstage Friday night. And the musicians seem to respect her. Her frequent performances around town — concertos with the orchestra, various chamber-music engagements — have increased her visibility in what is a high-profile position.
Keefe’s versatility is striking. She’s a chameleon. Playing Vaughan Williams’ “A Lark Ascending” a season or two ago, her tone was pure and restrained, almost pale — perfect for that piece. Her Brahms Friday night — gutsy, dark-toned, intensely lyrical — sounded like it was coming from a different player. The performance was thoughtful and probing, with thrusting momentum and ample emotion, and it was supported at all times by Vänskä’s poised and magisterial accompaniment.
Puts’ imaginative and deftly orchestrated “Two Mountain Scenes,” premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2007, opened the concert. The first movement begins with a quartet of trumpets combining to create the illusion of a single trumpet reverberating across a valley. The lower strings respond with a dark, brooding theme that unwinds more fully each time it appears.
The second movement evokes a mountain storm. It ends with subtle percussion and a melancholy passage in the strings suggesting both grandeur and menace. Puts was present for the performance. He spoke briefly about the music at the start and shared the enthusiastic audience response at the end.
Like Puts’ “Mountain Scenes,” the Nielsen symphony, composed in 1925, makes elaborate use of sly percussion effects. Vänskä led a brilliant and flavorful account of the work, emphasizing the mockery, grotesque humor and giddy desperation of the music. Among the many excellent solo passages, R. Douglas Wright captured perfectly the zany Harpo Marx quality of the slide trombone outbursts in the “Humoreske” movement.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.