While arena-rock musicians are expected to play the hits, classical ensembles like the Minnesota Orchestra have reacted to the confines of COVID by offering the deep cuts.
OK, you may be familiar with some of what the orchestra is serving up in its livestreams from an empty Orchestra Hall, but it's not the kind of thing you're used to hearing from this group. It's mostly chamber music or works written for considerably smaller orchestras. That's the way it is when you mix music with social distancing.
Mind you, the orchestra has been known in the past to sprinkle a bit of Bach amid its customarily larger-scale repertoire. And such a work was the centerpiece of Friday evening's concert, which was broadcast live and remains available at MinnesotaOrchestra.org. In his final appearance as a soloist before retiring at season's end, oboist John Snow shared the spotlight with violinist Peter McGuire on an eminently enjoyable double concerto made all the richer through close-range camera work.
It's the high point of a program that features pieces premiered in four centuries, including a meditative brass work, an elegy for strings and the concert's closest thing to a hit, Antonin Dvorak's Serenade for Winds. But the Bach is the best reason to tune in, the interpretation full of energy and affection.
A pattern has emerged for these livestreams in that the brass players frequently bat leadoff. Three trombones and a tuba performed "Bruckner Etude" by Uruguay's Enrique Crespo, who died last month. Not fashioned after any particular piece by German romantic Anton Bruckner, it instead pays homage to his love of low brass. The performance proved a great opportunity to appreciate the unique skill set required to play a trombone, lips, air and arms combining to create lines high and lyrical, low and meaty.
The concert's newest piece was English composer Philip Herbert's "Elegy: In Memoriam — Stephen Lawrence," which debuted in 2000. With a sound world not far afield from that of Herbert's countryman Ralph Vaughan Williams, it's a sad but stirring work for string orchestra, commemorating the life of a Black British teenager killed in a hate crime. Herbert introduced the work by dedicating the performance to not only Lawrence but George Floyd, who died last year in Minneapolis police custody.
Yet it's not a work of weighty intensity or grave grief, but one with whispers of hope and optimism amid its minor-key strains. And the orchestra's strings lent it a wistful tenderness.
Bach's Concerto for Oboe and Violin is a work that Snow and McGuire said they've played together at least a dozen times, and their well-honed chemistry came through in their lively performance. Snow's lines were as lilting and lyrical as one could wish, while McGuire was smooth and spirited, especially on the fleet-fingered ornamented phrases of the finale.
It could have been a conductor-less concert, but music director Osmo Vänskä emerged to take the podium for its closing work, the Dvorak serenade. His leadership was a welcome addition, for he may have catalyzed the extra boost of bravado in the propulsive Andante and the folk dance-flavored finale.
And fine solos burst forth from throughout the ensemble, particularly from oboist Julie Gramolini Williams, clarinetist Gabriel Campos Zamora and principal French horn Michael Gast.
Rather than an explosive climax, it felt more like a comforting blanket of harmony in which to enwrap yourself at evening's end. And couldn't we all use a bit more of that?
For those who long for the big sound that Vänskä and the orchestra brought to Orchestra Hall pre-COVID, its recording of Gustav Mahler's 10th Symphony comes out Friday, with advance purchase available on Monday. If you're among the first 250 to order through the orchestra's website, Vänskä will sign it for you.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music critic. firstname.lastname@example.org.