If an ideal time exists to experience the journey through trials to triumph found in Beethoven's music, this might be it. The collective trauma of COVID-19 continues, with Minnesota now among America's hotbeds of new diagnoses. Where can one find some joy?
Well, joy is on the program at this weekend's Minnesota Orchestra concerts. Specifically, the "Ode to Joy" that concludes Beethoven's symphonic swan song, the Ninth. You couldn't be blamed for thinking this the booster shot your spirit needs.
But I left Thursday's midday matinee saddened, disappointed that the orchestra missed the chance to deliver the healing touch that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony can provide. Instead, it was a relatively punchless, curiously off-kilter Ninth, mostly devoid of that "fair spark of Elysium" sung about in the finale.
Not that the singing wasn't splendid. Although masked, the Minnesota Chorale was magnificent, and the four vocal soloists — soprano Melody Moore, mezzo Kelley O'Connor, tenor Sean Panikkar and bass Mark S. Doss — intertwined their voices beautifully, especially on their transporting final slow section.
But guest conductor Juraj Valčuha sometimes chose to accelerate the tempos to speeds I'd never encountered with this work. Consequently, it sounded like the orchestra had a hard time staying together.
That impression was amplified by some unusual emphases in Valčuha's unbalanced interpretation, as when interjections from the winds trampled the main theme in the strings. And pity poor Panikkar, whose lone solo was forced into overdrive by the conductor's haste.
Pace doesn't necessarily mean energy, and there was seldom as much of that as an inspiring performance of the Ninth requires. Fire and intensity were largely absent from the stormy opening movement, as were crispness and, for lack of a better term, oomph. And while the Adagio movement offered some lovely respite from the tempests around it, the fine solos from the orchestra's winds seemed like enjoyable parts that never added up to a beautiful sum.
I had high hopes for the performance after a precise and propulsive take on the concert-opening Sinfonietta No. 1 by 20th-century American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. It's a work for which Valčuha clearly has a passion, as he's requested it on programs he's conducted elsewhere. He was flamboyant and demonstrative in leading the orchestra's strings, which responded with a thrilling performance that was sad and lovely in its central slow movement.
On past visits, Valčuha has proven popular with Minnesota Orchestra audiences. Hence, there was talk of his being a candidate to succeed Osmo Vänskä as the Minnesota Orchestra's music director. But the Houston Symphony snatched him up.
When my concert companion asked me afterward to recommend a recording of Beethoven's Ninth, I pointed him to the one that this orchestra and choir recorded with Vänskä in 2006.
Judging from the thrilling performance of the Fifth Symphony that opened the season in September, I know that something magical can still happen when Beethoven, Vänskä and this orchestra come together.
Can the orchestra play the composer's work as well when adjusting to another conductor's style? Perhaps. Indeed, they may very well sound great by Saturday night, offering up some of that sorely needed joy.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music critic. firstname.lastname@example.org.
With: Conductor Juraj Valcuha, the Minnesota Chorale and vocal soloists. What: Works by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and Beethoven. When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls. Tickets: $30-$114. 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org.