Enough with the intimacy. Maybe it's time for some big music.
That certainly seems the motivation behind this weekend's Minnesota Orchestra program. For the first of nine summer concerts, the organization tossed off its metaphorical mask and unleashed a full-throated shout.
On Friday night, Orchestra Hall seemed much as it was in summers past, albeit without the fountain-side food vendors. Masks were optional for the fully vaccinated, and a festive feel was returning to the glassy environs, complete with pre- and post-concert jazz in the atrium.
Onstage was the largest collection of musicians assembled since the pandemic's onslaught emptied their hall. So the orchestra celebrated with music that was all about the pure power of a stage-filling ensemble. Music by composers who weren't afraid to be a little over-the-top in their quest for maximum volume in the concert hall. Folks like Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss.
Yet the high point of the evening was far more subtle and somewhat sad. Florence Price's Piano Concerto in One Movement received its Minnesota Orchestra debut, and it felt like a long overdue acknowledgment of an artist whose career should have been an American success story but was instead squelched because of her gender and skin color.
At the piano was Jon Kimura Parker, whose tenure as the orchestra's creative partner for summer programming is at last underway after COVID scuttled last year's plans. His was a fine performance of the piece, particularly during a deeply absorbing slow movement. Discovering a very intriguing piece written 87 years ago proved the best reason to catch the concert, managing to eclipse the orchestral fireworks on either side of it.
While the presence of music director Osmo Vänskä on the podium may have seemed a welcome return to normalcy for the half-capacity crowd, he was actually supposed to be taking the summer off. His fellow Finn, Dima Slobodeniouk, was slated to conduct, but the pandemic travel restrictions that have made last-minute pinch hitting a common classical music occurrence struck again. Up stepped Vänskä.
And it was great fun seeing him show off his athletic enthusiasm during Berlioz's concert-opening "Le Corsaire" Symphonic Overture. There was so much going on in the refreshingly enormous ensemble onstage that Vänskä seemed almost a contortionist in his attempts to sufficiently cue every section of the orchestra making a big entrance. For this is a piece overflowing with big entrances.
Price's piano concerto proved a welcome contrast, an often understated melancholy meditation. Soloist Parker brought out the jazz inspirations that Price shared with her contemporary George Gershwin, flourishes up and down the keyboard bookended by emphatic orchestral blasts. Yet it's a work marked by a wistful sense of loss, never articulated more eloquently than during a lengthy duet between Parker and guest oboist Nathan Hughes at the start of the concerto's slow section.
The ragtime-flavored finale sounded like Price's homage to Scott Joplin, and Parker wisely chose to offer Joplin's musical sigh of sadness, "Solace," as an encore.
But if big, booming orchestral sounds are something you've missed, there are plenty to be found in Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration." Vänskä and the orchestra made the piece's quietest sections the most compelling, particularly the haunting slow build of an opening.
The center of the work featured one explosion after another, but I found the subtle sections far more fascinating. Such as when swells of strings gave way to a sense of peaceful acceptance, Vänskä opening his arms wide as if embracing something too large to get his arms around.
Or perhaps it was a gesture of celebration for his orchestra being at last reunited.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org