Conductor Gemma New is a New Zealander with zeal. She's a woman in perpetual motion on the podium, as New demonstrated Friday night while leading her first program with the Minnesota Orchestra.

New did more than wave a baton during Friday evening's concert at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. The principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony led the ensemble with her entire body, twisting, reaching, lunging, striding. Bursting with energy, she made the orchestra's athletic music director, Osmo Vänskä, look low-key by comparison.

But how was the music? Well, pretty good to excellent. A relatively recent work by Canadian composer Vivian Fung was intriguing, while Samuel Barber's First Symphony was akin to a 20-minute explosion, leaving me to wonder what kind of eruption was in store for Johannes Brahms' howl of grief on his First Piano Concerto.

Imagine my surprise when New and soloist Sunwook Kim collaborated on the most subtle and involving interpretation of the Brahms concerto I'd encountered in many a moon. The pianist was both delicate and assertive, precise and passionate. What could have been one emotional overload too many instead was one of the most successfully executed collaborations with a soloist the orchestra has presented this season.

Prior to that, the drama was pretty relentless. Fung's "Aqua" — inspired by a Chicago skyscraper with amorphous contours — was built upon undulating waves of sound that New summoned up with bold, broad physicality.

Then came the Barber symphony, which started out loud and grew louder. It sounded as if bound to fly off the rails at any moment on the rollicking opening before the "Andante tranquillo" floated in on a mesmerizing solo by the sweet-toned Sherry Sylar, the New York Philharmonic's associate principal oboist.

Despite a paucity of dynamic contrast, there was admirable playing throughout the ensemble, something New acknowledged by asking over a dozen musicians to take a solo bow during the ensuing ovation.

While a concerto is more often the centerpiece of a program than the finale, the Brahms deserved to be the headliner. The dynamic contrast I'd been craving was in abundance, the balance between piano and orchestra ideal.

Every note Kim played rang clearly through the hall. His solo flights were captivating, his meditations melancholy yet optimistic. He engaged in intriguing exchanges with principal French horn Michael Gast, avoiding the overwrought schmaltz that burdens too many Brahms interpretations.

The strings also sounded splendid, never overstating the work's emotional extremes, and New helped shape the concerto's delicate pianissimos into a gossamer web of sound. Each of Kim's cadenzas was a short, engrossing journey that made me hungry to hear this inventive artist in a recital setting.

A well-deserved standing ovation resulted in more Brahms, an Intermezzo from his Opus 118 that proved an introspective lullaby. It was among the composer's last works, and Kim made it a wistful wonder, a tender, touching close to a concert that went from a scream to a whisper.

Rob Hubbard is a freelance Twin Cities classical music writer.