Snowfall took a bite out of the Minnesota Orchestra’s audience Thursday morning, with an originally sold-out concert looking half-empty.
The stage was still packed, though, as the orchestra wheeled out reinforcements for a performance of Richard Strauss’ mighty tone-poem “Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).” The piece requires a huge orchestra, and the risers were jammed with extra brass players and a phalanx of percussion instruments
Marshaling the forces was Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko, recently named music director of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, starting from the 2021-22 season. Petrenko’s interpretation of “Ein Heldenleben” had tremendous sweep and energy, drawing wonderfully committed and articulate playing from the orchestra.
The opening bit hard on lower strings, laying a formidable foundation for a strutting first paragraph depicting the “hero” of the work’s title — a thinly disguised portrait of Strauss himself.
The gaggling woodwinds had an appropriately waspish tone in the section known as “The Hero’s Adversaries,” where Strauss aimed witty barbs at music critics who disliked his work.
Also pictured in “Ein Heldenleben” is Strauss’ wife, with a lengthy violin solo the composer described as “happy, flippant, tender, insolent, lovable and scolding” in markings to the music. Concertmaster Erin Keefe gave a highly nuanced portrait of Pauline Strauss’ character, full of capriciousness and sensuality. Even in 2019, the vast majority of concertmasters are still men. So it was refreshing to hear Pauline’s music interpreted by a woman.
Petrenko drove the orchestra hard in the notorious “Battle” scene, where Strauss and his “adversaries” clash in violent combat. But there was clarity amid the flailing weapons, too — not to mention wonderfully explosive volleys of percussion.
Peace comes eventually in the concluding section, where Strauss retires from the world to contemplate his life’s achievements. Keefe’s violin reappeared nostalgically, counterpointed by principal horn Michael Gast’s tender solo.
“Ein Heldenleben” lasts 50 minutes, written in a single movement. Petrenko’s control of its architecture appeared total, with obvious ability to fire up the Minnesota Orchestra players.
A different, mellower side of his musical nature was evident in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which opened the concert.
Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky was the soloist. Together with Petrenko, Lugansky took a leisurely approach to the concerto’s lengthy opening movement. His playing was marked by a patrician elegance, long strings of notes unfurling opalescently in a relaxed fashion. In the famous middle movement, where Beethoven calms a gruff orchestra with the placidity of the piano, Lugansky seemed almost to suggest an element of tragedy underlying the poetry of the music.
Occasional hints of roughness and excess adrenaline surfaced in the orchestra’s playing of the bustling finale. But overall this was a richly satisfying account of a much-played concerto.
As for Petrenko’s “Ein Heldenleben,” it was something else entirely, ranking among the best played, most powerful performances so far in Minnesota Orchestra’s 2018-19 season.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.