Bird fanciers will find Orchestra Hall an especially congenial place this weekend. For the first program in the Minnesota Orchestra’s three-week “Spirit and Spring” series, Osmo Vänskä has programmed works by Vaughan Williams and Messiaen that derive much of their content from bird song.
Played back-to-back, as they were in the concert Thursday morning, these pieces sounded not only boldly individual but they seemed to comment on each other, as is often the case with uncommon pairings. Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” which might be thought of as the essence of English pastoral poetry in sound, seemed even more delicate, almost ethereal, when played next to Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” (“Exotic Birds”).
Vaughan Williams is romanticizing nature. His lark, heard as if from a distance, chirps sweetly. Messiaen’s birds — several singing at once — sound harsh in contrast, and yet they are closer to the real thing. Messiaen, for whom bird song was a lifelong obsession, derived all his melodic material from bird song, which he carefully notated.
His birds sound much of the time as if they’re in a bad mood, whereas the lark, a cockeyed optimist if ever there were one, looks on the bright side of life and refrains from disturbing the neighbors.
The performances in both cases were first-rate. Concertmaster Erin Keefe’s violin served as our lark, easily capturing the gentle sweetness and unhurried simplicity of this music. Using minimal vibrato and displaying immaculate high notes, she made the right choices — this is music that can’t be pressured or pushed. Given the right touch, it’s almost as if we’re overhearing the music in the background.
Timothy Lovelace was the expert pianist in the Messiaen, which is scored for an orchestra of 11 winds and seven percussion. Cerebral and heartless as this music is, Vänskä led a performance full of color and excitement.
The curtain-raiser, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, a celebration of both the resurrection of Christ and the rebirth of the earth after the death of winter, was smartly paced and much enhanced by superb solo playing, most notably that by trombonist Kari Sundstrom, who was enthusiastically cheered at the end.
Vänskä’s illuminating approach to Beethoven is a known quantity in these parts. The Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” which took up the second half of the concert, sustained that high level in a performance as carefully detailed as it was noble and dramatic.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.