The back end of the Orchestra Hall stage looked like a closeout sale at a drum shop on Friday night. Percussion instruments of various types, many of them Chinese, were positioned on a raised platform along the back wall, while in front of them sat the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and, standing at the podium, their conductor, Osmo Vänskä.
This was the setup for "Gejia," Chinese Images for Orchestra, a recent work by the prolific Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Aho was one of five composers invited in 2011 by the National Center for the Arts in Beijing to visit China, hear its indigenous music, observe its many cultures and use these experiences as a starting point for a work of their own.
Aho found the inspiration for his "Gejia" in two parts of China. (The Gejia are an ethnic group known for their batik method of dyeing textiles.) On his first day in Beijing he heard a traditional Chinese orchestra and was especially captivated by the orchestra's elaborate percussion section and the many sounds it could produce.
Later, during a visit to Gejia villages in southern China, he heard a different kind of music — plaintive folk melodies sung by young women of the village.
Aho combined these two idioms, creating a vivid 15-minute orchestral piece with constantly evolving colors and intricate, surprising rhythms — both being Aho trademarks. A raucous percussion cadenza for three players opens the piece and soon yields to a series of gentle folk tunes played by solo instruments. These strands eventually coalesce gradually, building in intensity to what sounds like an unfettered street dance, something like Mardi Gras in Beijing.
Vänskä, who has championed Aho's music for many years, drew from the orchestra an exciting performance full of atmosphere and bold touches. (Aho served as composer-in-residence at the Lahti Symphony in Finland during Vänskä's years at the helm of that fine orchestra, and he now holds the title of composer laureate.) Aho remains, at 67, one of the most imaginative and accomplished composers of our time.
Alisa Weilerstein, a much-admired young American cellist, was the evening's guest soloist, displaying compellingly dark tones and ample technical dazzle in Dvorak's familiar Cello Concerto in B minor. For Vänskä's part, rarely has the first movement held together so well with so clear a differentiation between the movement's two tempos.
Vänskä's expertise in the music of Sibelius is well known, and yet his reading of that composer's Symphony No. 5, which took up the second half, seemed fresh, almost revelatory in its assured — but dramatic — command of this composer's unique idiom and in the brilliance of the brass playing. All this suggested, as Vänskä has said more than once, that the Sibelius symphonies are "deep waters."
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.