Yoor-ai Val-choo-ah is how the name’s pronounced — it’s spelled Juraj Valcuha — and it might be worth getting to know how to pronounce it.
The Slovakian conductor has returned to the Minnesota Orchestra three times since his debut four years ago and is a leading candidate for the post of music director when Osmo Vänskä leaves in 2022.
Friday evening’s Minnesota Orchestra concert pitted Valcuha against one of the pinnacles of the orchestral repertoire, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.
Ostensibly a musical depiction of a day’s trek in the mountains, the work also harbors deeper emotional and philosophical content, especially regarding humankind’s relationship to the natural world.
Valcuha’s account of Strauss’ vast, 50-minute tone poem was by turns majestic, expansive and mysterious, and he drew rich expressiveness from a bulked-up Minnesota Orchestra.
Plenty of performances of the Alpine Symphony are good at nailing the really big moments — the brass-capped arrival at the mountain’s summit, for instance — and Valcuha nailed them, too.
But even more impressive was the way he made the less obviously eventful stages of the journey seem gripping.
The “In Flowery Meadows” and “In a Mountain Pasture” episodes both had beguilingly relaxed qualities, while the “Quiet Before the Storm” was breath-catching, and boasted a beautiful solo from principal oboe John Snow.
Valcuha’s precise yet lissome baton technique elicited a warmer tone than usual from the violins, and at times, the ensemble playing had a luminosity reminiscent of Rudolf Kempe, a great Strauss conductor of a bygone era.
It’s not easy to avoid bombast in the Alpine Symphony, but Valcuha’s highly nuanced, enthralling interpretation achieved it. The players tapped their stands enthusiastically for him afterward, and he deserved it.
Before intermission quite a different challenge featured Stravinsky’s spiky, hyperactive Violin Concerto, with Orchestra Hall favorite Leila Josefowicz as soloist.
The piece is built on pulsing rhythms and jagging interplay between the solo violin and a smallish orchestra, and it can seem a slightly abstruse, cerebral proposition.
Josefowicz was totally engaged, however, and used the liberal volleys of multi-stopped chords to galvanize attention and communicate the concerto’s bristling vitality.
It was a consistently physical performance. At one point Josefowicz leaned forward to share some wiry harmonics with the audience, and at other points, her face lit up gleefully at the music’s irrepressible jesting.
The Capriccio finale was a burst of joy from start to finish, and Valcuha’s sharp beat kept the accompaniment punchy.
Anton Webern’s “Im Sommerwind” opened the concert, and it was further evidence of Valcuha’s command of different idioms. Sometimes the music sounds like Strauss, but it was the diaphanous, Debussy-like passages that caught the ear in Valcuha’s judiciously sifted interpretation.
He is, as they say, all about the music — no ego evident, no gratuitous divo posturing. The results were deeply satisfying on Friday evening, in one of the most musically rewarding concerts of the past few seasons.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.