If you're wondering why some of Minneapolis' buildings and bridges are decked out in red and white lights this weekend, it's all because of one man. The Minnesota Orchestra is welcoming its new music director, Denmark's Thomas Søndergård, and those are the colors of his nation's flag.
Midday Thursday, Søndergård's tenure began at one of those red-and-white striped buildings, Orchestra Hall, where the new boss made his first day at the office a memorable one. Rather than ramp things up gradually from a soft opening, Søndergård chose to go gangbusters with one of the most massive of orchestral epics, Richard Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony."
He also raised the curtain with more soaring Strauss, his tone poem, "Don Juan," which starts with one of the classical canon's most explosive blastoffs before immersing the audience in one sumptuous musical love scene after another. Toss a little Mozart into the middle — with its demands of crisp precision — and it was quite the ambitious program.
And as a means of christening a new era in the orchestra's 120-year history, it served the celebratory purpose well. It was stirring at the start, as effervescent as champagne at its center, and as big and bold as one could wish in its almost-hourlong finale. And throughout it all, Søndergård seemed a leader with firm ideas about what he wanted from the music and a very graceful way of communicating them.
Like newlyweds revisiting the site of their first date, Søndergård and the orchestra were able to once again bond over Strauss. It was that composer's "Ein Heldenleben" that put a glimmer in the eyes of the orchestra's musicians on his first visit in 2021, leading many to believe that they'd found someone very special.
On Strauss' "Don Juan," Søndergård emphasized layers of legato phrases dripping with romantic yearning, enhanced by lovely solos by the orchestra's new assistant principal oboist, Kate Wegener, and Jaclyn Rainey on French horn. The conductor's sense of drama peaked with a pregnant pause before the piece's solemn coda.
The orchestra's principal oboist, Nathan Hughes, is a St. Paul native who had a very happy homecoming Thursday as soloist on Mozart's lone Oboe Concerto. Hughes brought maximum loveliness to the work's flowing phrases, especially on the melancholy Adagio, and each of his cadenzas displayed his rich tone and digital dexterity, some of his rapid-fire lines akin to those of a bebop saxophonist.
"An Alpine Symphony" is a work worth experiencing in any context, and the sense of occasion was in full flower on this day. This musical evocation of a journey up and down a mountain is a consummate showcase for a large orchestra, every section and principal player getting an opportunity to shine. And shine they did, even if there were occasional balance issues in the early going that were resolved in the work's second half.
When Søndergård and the orchestra reached the summit at the center of the piece, it was pure ecstatic triumph. And what a storm the orchestra summoned up, especially in the percussion section, a group that may be forging a special connection with the conductor, as that's the part of the orchestra in which he launched his professional career.
With: Conductor Thomas Søndergård and oboist Nathan Hughes
What: Works by Richard Strauss and Mozart
When: 8 p.m. Fri., 7 p.m. Sat.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $31-$106 (under 18 free, some choose-your-price tickets on Saturday), available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.