A program of Haydn and Mozart symphonies, plus two relatively unfamiliar works by Leonard Bernstein, proved a tough sell at Orchestra Hall on Friday evening, with large sections of seating left unoccupied.
Those present were treated to one of the most musically absorbing concerts of the Minnesota Orchestra season.
On the podium was the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, a 53-year-old who led the BBC Philharmonic in England for seven successful seasons and has guest-conducted America's top orchestras.
Mena started off with what seemed an unassuming choice — Haydn's Symphony No. 44, a piece where only half the orchestra's usual number of players is needed.
Haydn's music can look undemanding on paper, but it needs super-careful balancing and articulation to make it sing in performance.
Mena brought those skills in spades to an interpretation that combined a feline elegance of phrasing with probing insight into the shadowy emotional regions the so-called "Mourning" Symphony inhabits.
The featherlight violin figurations in the slow movement had exquisite delicacy, and the finale zipped crisply forward without succumbing to a pumped-up overemphasis.
Bernstein's "Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)" was a different type of challenge. Written in the decade of "Candide" and "West Side Story," it's based on a philosophical dialogue about love and puts a solo violinist in the spotlight.
Jennifer Koh immediately riveted attention with the sweet intensity of her playing in the unaccompanied introduction and with the elastic snap of her spiccato accents in the up-tempo Allegro that followed.
Koh's finespun cantabile in the introspective "Agathon" had a breath-catching quality, and Mena drew an accompaniment of rapt sensitivity from the players.
He returned to Bernstein after intermission for the "Divertimento," a work written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra's centenary in 1980.
It's a blast of a piece, sometimes literally. Outrageously jazzy brass licks were relished by the orchestra's back-line, and no fewer than seven percussionists cut loose in a farrago of exhilarating cross-rhythms.
Mena clearly relished the Bernstein brio, and he showed himself as quite the podium dancer in a series of impromptu pirouettes and jump-like maneuvers.
It was back to serious business for the last work of the evening, Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor.
Many of the qualities that distinguished Mena's Haydn resurfaced in his Mozart. The succession of imitative string entries in the pulsing Andante movement emerged with telling clarity and eloquence, Mena lacing them seductively together like a master weaver.
In a brisk take on movements three and four, Mena shrewdly ratcheted up the sense of existential uncertainty that permeates the 40th Symphony. The finale in particular boasted wonderfully incisive string playing at a challengingly fast tempo.
Talk is heating up in Orchestra Hall about who will succeed Osmo Vänskä as music director when he steps down at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season.
In this deeply satisfying concert, Mena set the bar high for potential candidates. There wasn't a line of music that he didn't energize, and the orchestra played with a discerning intelligence for him.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.