Among the three conductors who seem to hold the inside track on succeeding Osmo Vänskä as the Minnesota Orchestra's next music director, fate has made Fabien Gabel the one who's auditioning in the most surreptitious fashion.
His first visit earlier this year had him leading small subsets of the orchestra in an online concert from an empty Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. On Friday, he returned during a major snowstorm that brought attendance down to about a quarter of capacity.
Those who braved the blowing and drifting experienced a concert overflowing with flamboyance and explosiveness.
Church bells rang while the bells of brass instruments rose in fanfare. Percussionists thundered on their bass drums and timpani. And, throughout a full-throated performance of Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," Gabel gave off an air of command, standing stately and gesturing broadly. And it was some well-executed Berlioz, especially during the central slow movement.
But Gabel had to surrender guest-of-honor status to Tai Murray. The Chicago-born, Europe-based violinist was the soloist on Felix Mendelssohn's E-minor Violin Concerto, and hers was an unceasingly exciting performance filled with pure, scintillating high notes and rapid-fire deliveries of tightly clustered tones.
It added up to what felt like an old-school evening. Gabel and Murray seem quite traditional in their approaches to the 19th-century music on the program, as well as a 1910 Engelbert Humperdinck overture that sounded pretty darn 19th-century.
Both exude confidence and cut statuesque figures. For long stretches of the Mendelssohn concerto, Murray's fingers and bow arm were the only part of her body moving. But there was fire in her interpretation of this familiar masterpiece. Her first-movement cadenza bore a mysterious mood, a tone of longing coursing through it. And the slow movement was a showcase for her sublime subtlety and mastery of varied dynamics.
Murray's cathartic high notes resonated most richly, each sounding like the release of a pent-up spirit. The audience may have been smaller than customary, but it was enthusiastic in its response, winning an encore from Murray — a transfixing take on the Largo movement from J.S. Bach's Third Violin Sonata.
There were times during Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" when I wondered if Gabel was a little too old-school. While graceful on the podium, he frequently returned to a few common cues and gestures, seeming intent on expressing the mood of the piece — akin to a dancer whose movements are inspired by the music — rather than offering anything unexpected in the way of direction.
But there was one very satisfying exception: the central slow movement that Berlioz dubbed "In the Country." In the middle of a symphony that advanced the cause of romanticism in a big way when it premiered in 1830, Gabel helped shape something pastoral and calming. Thanks in part to arresting solos by Marni J. Hougham on English horn and Gabriel Campos Zamora on clarinet, it proved a deeply involving and ultimately moving movement.
The "Symphonie Fantastique" is such a crowd pleaser that a standing ovation was almost inevitable, but so many musicians acquitted themselves so admirably that the response was well deserved. And it's not often that a bell takes a bow, but two new church bells made their debut at Friday's performance, and one was rolled out to absorb the applause.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music critic. firstname.lastname@example.org