So this is what it's like when Osmo Vänskä doesn't have to worry about being music director of the Minnesota Orchestra anymore. When he returns to the Orchestra Hall podium as a semi-retired freelancer — or, more accurately, conductor laureate — he can lead concerts heavy on new music and featuring unusual programming like two bass concertos, when you rarely find even one.

You don't expect a concert to be a box office bonanza when the closest composer to a household name is Gioachino Rossini, and even he only gets seven minutes of stage time via the overture to his opera, "The Barber of Seville." No, this weekend's performances were all about exposing audiences to uncustomary sounds, and Friday night's proved an ear-opening experience, bursting with stimulating ideas and expert musicianship.

The standout on the latter account was bassist Nina Bernat. The most famous bass concertos are those by Italian romantic Giovanni Bottesini, and this 23-year-old from outside Atlanta made that composer's second concerto exhilarating, lovely and lyrical. Bernat is technically precise and impressively emotive, most memorably on the concerto's slow movement, when she made her instrument sound like a lovestruck operatic tenor. And the finale was an adrenaline rush that was full of cleanly executed fast passages.

During Vänskä's 19-year tenure atop the orchestra, it became world famous for the symphonies of Beethoven and Jean Sibelius, so perhaps it was easy to miss what a champion of new music he was. One work he and the orchestra co-commissioned before Vänskä's 2022 departure was "Through Lost Landscapes" by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, which at last made its local debut this weekend.

It's an intriguing work that stirs up all sorts of unconventional timbres from the orchestra. After a series of explosive surges, it becomes more contemplative as a soprano sax and a battery of chimes ring out. A fascinating effect arrives when the strings seem to gradually slide downward in tone, giving way to a chorus of desperate birdsong in the winds.

If Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich had written a bass concerto, it might have sounded a lot like the one composed by Estonia's Eduard Tubin in 1957. It has plenty of menace lurking in the lower voices, and Bernat did a masterful job of asserting the power of the individual above the orchestra's insistent martial rhythms. It's quite an interesting concerto, its three movements linked by cadenzas on which Bernat made the case that a bass is a lot like a cello with much more bottom in its sound. Indeed, a lengthy standing ovation inspired an encore: a transcription for bass of a movement from a J.S. Bach Cello Suite.

Vänskä's strongest local legacy probably is the Minnesota Orchestra's full, rich sound, and Kevin Puts' Concerto for Orchestra — premiered a mere year ago — was a tremendously rewarding showcase for that. Puts has a rare gift for orchestration, and this work has several transporting moments, most memorably a Siciliana movement full of wistful melancholy, and pianist Susan Billmeyer bringing forth beauty and sorrow on an extended solo.

Minnesota Orchestra

With: Conductor Osmo Vänskä and bassist Nina Bernat

What: Works by Gioachino Rossini, Giovanni Bottesini, Anders Hillborg, Eduard Tubin and Kevin Puts

When: 7 p.m. Sat.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

Tickets: $10-$106, ages 6 to 18 free, 612-371-5656 or

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at