A lot of water, some of it murky, has passed under the bridge since 2010, the last time the Minnesota Orchestra packed its instruments in travel cases and jetted off to tour Europe. In those half-dozen years between came a calamitous labor dispute, during much of which the question was whether the orchestra would survive at all, let alone go touring again.
How times have changed. A week ago the Minnesota players returned to the Twin Cities after a whirlwind tour of four European cities. The aim? To put the orchestra back in the international spotlight, and show that the dark, desperate period of lockout and inactivity was now firmly behind it.
If the reaction of critics reviewing the concerts is anything to go by, it was mission accomplished. In Lahti, Finland, where Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä was once chief conductor, the daily newspaper Aamulehti praised the “highly energetic” performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, while the Helsingin Sanomat highlighted the “streamlined, polished” tone of what it described as “a monumental interpretation.”
In Edinburgh, at the storied International Festival, the reception was no different. “That plush, supercharged Minnesota sound is back with a new edge of tenacity,” enthused the Guardian. “The quintessential big glossy American orchestra,” was the Scotsman’s verdict, “the strings rich and sweeping, all sections fanatically ordered and cooperative.”
At all four stop-offs, which included Copenhagen and the famed Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the contribution of tour soloist Pekka Kuusisto was a major talking point. His performances of violin concertos by Sibelius and Prokofiev were judged highly individual and expressive, but it was what happened afterward that particularly drew attention.
Speaking to the audience, Kuusisto drew parallels between the experience of the Minnesota Orchestra players during the lockout, the Nordic immigration to the state in the 19th century, and patterns of forced migration in the modern era. And then he played “We Sold Our Home,” an old Swedish folk song, as an encore. The orchestra hummed along, and Vänskä joined in on clarinet, in what one reviewer called a “profoundly moving” moment.
For Gwen Pappas, director of public relations at the Minnesota Orchestra, the tour has been a defining moment in the ensemble’s emergence from a traumatic period of uncertainty and contractual wrangling. “It was pretty spectacular,” she says. “Really good venues, really strong performances, and terrific response from audiences.”
The day the players spent with Vivo, a training orchestra for student musicians in Finland, was, one of the trip’s special experiences, Pappas said. Rehearsing Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony alongside the Finnish youngsters, then performing it with Vänskä, was for some of the Minnesota Orchestra members “the high point of the tour,” a unique learning experience for all 140 participants.
As a new season at home base in Orchestra Hall beckons, Pappas describes the orchestra’s post-tour mood as “pretty euphoric.” “I got a general sense of great satisfaction with how the concerts went, and a hunger for doing more,” she says. “It was important to show we’re out there on the international map, and we’re sounding better than ever.”
A recent transplant from Ireland, Terry Blain is a Twin Cities music and theater writer.