The Minnesota Orchestra's 35th annual Sommerfest got underway in spirited fashion at Orchestra Hall Friday night as an enthusiastic, near-capacity audience responded to a program of standard works guided by the festival's artistic director, Andrew Litton.

Looked at as a whole, however, the festival remains a pale shadow of what it once was. If it were a movie, we'd call it "The Incredible Shrinking Sommerfest." Where not so long ago the festival offered 30 concerts over a four-week period, now it's really only about eight or nine in just two weeks.

Where 1,000 or more people used to sit outside on the plaza enjoying a preconcert performance, on Friday night the biggest part of the plaza, the part owned by the city of Minneapolis, remained empty and unused. The city, we're told, still hasn't decided what to do with the space.

With so conventional a program as Litton put together for opening night — familiar works by Berlioz, Rachmaninoff and Brahms — the least one could hope for was a series of strong performances, and in this regard the evening was a success.

With fluent technique, a light touch and a wide range of tonal color, the gifted young pianist Alessio Bax brought forth surprising and subtle details in an imaginative account of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." And after intermission, Litton's sumptuously played reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 fused clarity, nobility and thoughtful pacing.

Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.