When Osmo Vänskä announced his departure from the Minnesota Orchestra at the end of the 2021-22 season, a common sentiment was: "He's going to be a tough act to follow." But some potential successors have it tougher than others.
Take Dima Slobodeniouk, who's conducting this weekend's orchestra concerts. Clues suggest he's probably a finalist for the music director job, as he was scheduled to visit three times during 2021 and '22 (although one was scotched by visa issues). That has the earmarks of an audition.
Yet Slobodeniouk comes bearing a résumé perhaps overly similar to Vänskä's before his arrival 19 years ago. Born in Moscow, he's lived in Vänskä's native Finland for three decades, just completed a five-year tenure as chief conductor of the Lahti Symphony — a job Vänskä held for 20 years — and was the artistic director of the Sibelius Festival.
So comparisons are inevitable. And that's too bad, for Slobodeniouk demonstrated at Friday night's concert that he's a distinctly different type of conductor. Tall and thin, he leads the orchestra with graceful, balletic gestures and taut, clipped cues. He's not the bouncy bundle of energy that Vänskä is on the podium, favoring stately confidence over perpetual motion.
That served the music well, especially during the evening's peak, a performance of Gustav Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," with double-Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as soloist. The orchestra's musicians served up a reminder that Mahler has become a specialty of the house. And the extremely well-executed music of 20th-century American composer Ulysses Kay proved a revelation.
But the biggest test proved to be Johannes Brahms' Fourth Symphony, the composer's farewell to the form. And that was nowhere near as exciting as it could have been. While Slobodeniouk looked to be doing all the right things on the podium, encouraging energy and oomph from the orchestra, the players only responded with one memorable movement, the third, which had more crispness, pace and punch than any version I've heard in years. The rest was fine, but bore few surprises.
Yet experiencing Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" interpreted by a charismatic performer with a pure and powerful voice was well worth braving the first wintry night of the season. Cooke displayed richness throughout her ample range and an animated, theatrical approach to creating a character for the four Mahler songs, widely regarded as the first song cycle written for orchestra.
Cooke buoyantly bounced about in celebration of a beautiful day on "I Went This Morning Over the Field." But she also captured the heartbreak and sorrow waiting at the cycle's conclusion, her dusky tone ideal for the mood of Mahler's sad march on the finale. It was some masterful Mahler.
The orchestra has been admirably introducing audiences to several African American composers whose works don't find their way onto orchestral programs as much as they should. They opened the concert with Kay's film score for the 1948 documentary, "The Quiet One," and I came away hungry to hear more of his work. While there were occasional echoes of such contemporaries as Aaron Copland and Franz Waxman, Kay had a voice quite his own, one with echoes of urban anxiety amid the lush and full-voiced orchestrations that Slobodeniouk and the orchestra brought to thrilling life.