An orchestra’s marketing department has to sell tickets. And it’s fair to say the name Paul Hindemith doesn’t set pulses racing.
As Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman put it during his introduction to Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” (“Matthias the Painter”) Symphony, the German composer’s music hasn’t exactly enjoyed the same exposure in the U.S. as that of his fellow émigré Igor Stravinsky.
Programming “Mathis der Maler” is, therefore, something of a risk, but one that was triumphantly vindicated by the Minnesota Orchestra’s imperious performance Thursday morning.
Key to the interpretation was conductor Osmo Vänskä’s seamless negotiation of the symphony’s many alterations of tempo and perspective. He also demonstrated an astute appreciation of the music’s shifting emotional temperatures.
Vänskä drew gorgeously hushed playing from the violins at the heart of the “Temptation of St. Anthony” finale. (The symphony is inspired by painter Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece in France.) There were also eloquently phrased contributions from the cello and viola sections.
In the “Entombment” movement, Vänskä ensured a coherent pulse beat in the potentially saggy opening phrases, creating a solid underlay for outstandingly expressive work by the flute and clarinet soloists.
Above all, perhaps, Vänskä successfully caught the uneasy, brooding nature of Hindemith’s music, written in the oppressive atmosphere of 1930s Germany. The brass chorale gleamed optimistically at the symphony’s conclusion — but the grim truth-telling of its darker moments rightly lingered.
Introspection also shadowed the central movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, which featured violist Matthew Lipman and Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe as soloists.
The two contrasted keenly in their style of playing. Where Keefe was generally sweet and songful in demeanor, the dulcet Lipman seemed more temperamentally inclined to probe the movement’s undeniable elements of hurt and vulnerability.
Both outer movements buzzed along busily, if a little too busily in places — some of the joshing comedy in the interactions between the soloists was lost in tempos that occasionally seemed a little on the brisk side.
The concert opened with another rarity, by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Like Hindemith, Lutosławski had his problems with political authorities, and the Little Suite of 1950 was ostensibly intended as an inoffensive piece based on Polish folk melodies.
Yet in Vänskä’s sharply contoured interpretation, one sensed subversive forces at play, from the spooky piccolo slitherings in the opening “Fujarka” to the sorrowful, emotionally drained wind solos and muted trumpet stabs of the third movement, “Song.”
The orchestra appeared to relish Lutosławski’s spiky, off-kilter idiom. The musicians played excellently.
And the audience? Its response to the Hindemith and Lutosławski pieces was warmly appreciative, scotching the notion that unfamiliar music is necessarily a risky ticket with classical audiences.
It isn’t — if, that is, it is delivered with the flair and conviction that the Minnesota Orchestra mustered at Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.