“Hello, I must be going …”
That’s a song Groucho Marx sang in the 1930 hit comedy “Animal Crackers.” It could also be a song for the conductor Andrew Litton, who kicked off the 37th annual edition of Sommerfest Friday night at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. After two more concerts next weekend, he’ll be gone.
This is what audiences have been putting up with the past few years: The Incredible Shrinking Sommerfest. What was at one time a lively, unpredictable, interestingly programmed summer festival presenting 30 or more concerts over the course of four weeks and drawing most years close to 60,000 people — with thousands more listening to free music out on Peavey Plaza — all this has shriveled to a quick week in July, and no plaza. Now you hear it, now you don’t.
No one’s blaming Litton, who has been the festival’s artistic director since 2003 and has always seemed the right person for the job. Call it circumstances, some of them unavoidable: loss of sponsorships and funding, one or two financial crises, plus a loss of confidence by the prior management. And, of course, the 16-month orchestra lockout didn’t help.
The future, however, lies ahead, as a wise man once said. Plans for the festival’s next phase — and who will run it — have not been announced. The city, we’re told, will complete the interminable plaza project in 2019.
In any case, the festival opened strong Friday night — more or less — with the orchestra in good form. Litton conducted works by Tchaikovsky, and André Watts was the soloist in a rarity, Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor. This made an interesting pairing: What many people think is MacDowell’s finest work along with what perhaps many of those same people think is Tchaikovsky’s weakest symphony, No. 3 in D, “Polish.”
Watts played the MacDowell with elegance and sparkle. This is a piece he obviously believes in. He took the music’s intricate passagework and filigree with a lightness that was pure gossamer, and where strength was called for, he was most impressive. It was one of Watts’ best performances here in recent years.
Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s familiar ballet “Sleeping Beauty” served as the curtain-raiser, all given suitable character and lift. As for the symphony, Litton brought focus and formal coherence — at least much of the time — to this rambling and stiff work.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.