Playing a concert at Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra could look back on a remarkable seven days that included headline-making concerts in Cuba and the announcement Tuesday of long-term contracts for both the musicians and their music director, Osmo Vänskä.
The man at the podium Thursday, conductor laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, has been creating headlines, too. At 91, he is the oldest major conductor still working. And he, too, has been traveling, conducting in Germany, Norway, England, Brazil and, most notably, Japan, where he is treated like a rock star — fans bearing gifts, lining up by the hundreds after his concerts.
Given Skrowaczewski's deep connection to this orchestra — he was its music director from 1960 to 1979 — it seemed natural that he preside at what could be taken as a welcome-home concert.
Skrowaczewski looks frail onstage, a delicate, elderly wizard — Gandalf with a baton. Yet the music he draws from this orchestra seems more vital and energetic than ever. A long-term perspective suggests Skrowaczewski is a better, certainly more interesting conductor today that he was 30 or 40 years ago. In addition to his unerring grasp of structure, he is more attentive now to the details of scores, especially in matters of dynamics. Moreover, he seems more willing to let the music simply flow rather than pushing or pulling it.
Certainly all these qualities were apparent Thursday morning, starting with the intense drama of the opening measures of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1, for instance, which took up the first half. This agitation — the shivering trills in the strings — was set in balance by the slow, introspective pacing of the first movement's second theme, which gave a wistful and autumnal feeling to the music.
The soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, a frequent guest here over the years and a valued colleague of Skrowaczewski's, worked similar emotional territory, exploring a deep vein of sadness in this music that is seldom addressed — molding the phrases of the slow movement with warmth and color — while utilizing his big sonority and almost limitless technique in the more exciting, bravura passages.
The work that took up the second half, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, followed the pattern of the Brahms — making overly familiar music seem almost new. Here, too, there was much to praise: the sense of suppressed drama in the introduction to the first movement, the setting of a perfect tempo for the second movement and a feeling of bacchanalian joy in the finale — something akin perhaps to late-night bar-hopping in Havana.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer