An American curtain-raiser and two big Russian works (having nothing in common but their Russianness) made a peculiar troika on Thursday's Minnesota Orchestra program. Superbly led by associate conductor Mischa Santora, the concert also featured profuse unscripted contributions from an audience evidently in the throes of respiratory failure. (Time to disinfect the hall?)

Jennifer Higdon's "blue cathedral" (2000) has been played by more than 100 orchestras -- and no wonder. Written partly as a memorial to the composer's brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, the music conjoins beauty and grief, offering a consolation that feels uncontrived. Though its language is rooted in Copland and its orchestration sometimes recalls Ravel, it sounds newly minted. Higdon's writing for percussion and winds is especially graceful; her piece, beautifully served by the performers, has a contemplative core.

I react allergically to much of Sergei Rachmaninoff's overblown music, but pianist Andrew Staupe had me believing, intermittently at least, in the charms of Rachmaninoff's First Concerto.

Making his subscription debut with the orchestra, the St. Paul native has both the chops and the theatrical flair this concerto needs. Winning in the melancholic Andante, Staupe also captured the dash and fizz of the outer movements without lapsing into grandiloquence. We ought to hear him again soon -- in less flashy repertory.

Rachmaninoff revised his First Concerto in 1917, as the October Revolution raged outside the walls of his Moscow flat. Twenty years later, when Dmitri Shostakovich was writing his Fifth Symphony, walls offered no protection: Stalin's Terror, which had ravaged the Russian intelligentsia, was ubiquitous. Shostakovich had been assailed in the party press. His next symphony would be a life-or-death matter; a misstep meant the Gulag.

Given the stakes, the Fifth seems an act of almost unimaginable courage. A landmark in what critic Alex Ross calls the weaponization of music, it "rehabilitated" the composer while (obliquely) speaking truth to power. The impact of the work's early performances is beyond recapturing, but Santora and the orchestra came close. The controlled hysteria of the first movement, the Mahlerian bite of the second, the tragic immensity of the third, the merciless battering of the last -- it was all there.

The Fifth shows no sign of obsolescence. What would have happened if the New York Philharmonic had played it this week in North Korea? We can only speculate.

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.