Once upon a time in musical history, asking what a piece of music "means" would have been deemed a more or less nonsensical question.

Nowadays, the trend for verbal explanations is virtually an epidemic — a function, perhaps, of trying to grab listeners' attention in our media-saturated culture.

Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri's "Lineage" is a case in point.

She describes the piece as "a combination of change and consistency, a reimagining of places and traditions I've known only second hand, the sound of a fictitious culture one dreams up to keep the memories of another generation alive."

If you hear that in the music, well and good.

Cut the explanations, though, and "Lineage" becomes a more than averagely interesting 11-minute work for large orchestra, and it opened the Minnesota Orchestra's coffee concert on Thursday morning.

American conductor Karina Canellakis was on the podium making her Orchestra Hall debut, and led a clear and confident performance of Di Castri's composition.

Its soundworld constantly demanded attention, from the plink of gong strokes in the expanded percussion section through the burble of xylophone and marimba, to the spitting bass and cello slaps that spiked up through the textures at one point.

Di Castri's use of microtones — pitches somewhere between the notes that you can strike on a piano — was also strongly evocative, creating the sonic equivalent of a fisheye lens effect at one moment, and a half-remembered dream at another.

Ravel's Piano Concerto followed, a piece that for the most part lives in the clear light of the present moment.

It's full of pranking and surprises, although its cheeky wrinkles were to some extent glossed over in an account of the opening movement, which was at times perfunctory.

Soloist Francesco Piemontesi seemed happy with a tempo on the speedy side of comfortable, but it meant the playful jazz licks in the orchestral accompaniment didn't swing the way they can do.

By contrast, the tempo of the middle movement — "slow, but not too slow," Ravel marks it — was close to perfect. For all the welcome sense of flow that Piemontesi brought to the beautiful piano melody, however, a certain elegance and ethereality was missing.

Fast speeds dominated again in the zip-wire finale, causing some smudgy brass detail amid the flurry of instrumental activity.

Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra came after intermission, and left similarly mixed feelings.

Canellakis led the piece with firm authority, but there were early signs of a ferocious edge to the music-making in the overheated violin work of the opening movement.

Warm chording in the brass chorales of the second movement, "Game of Couples," partly compensated, and there were raptly expressive solos from oboist John Snow and piccolo player Roma Duncan at the start of the central "Elegia."

But the finale had a scorched-earth quality to it that began to feel relentless, and lacking nuance. There is a thin line between exhilaration and brutality in this music, and this performance occasionally crossed it.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.