They say the great is the enemy of the good. That is certainly true in classical music, where established masterpieces are performed repeatedly at the expense of exploring interesting byways.
That tendency has been radically challenged in the Minnesota Orchestra’s three-week “American Expressions” festival, which climaxed at Orchestra Hall on Saturday evening.
None of the three works on the program were close to being from repertoire’s central casting. Yet put together with the care and attention that Osmo Vänskä and his players mustered, they made a fascinating evening.
Taut, sinewy brass playing powered the opening of William Schuman’s New England Triptych, a piece that uses tunes by the 18th-century master of hymnody William Billings.
The plaintive oboe solos of Kathryn Greenbank wove heart-tuggingly through the central meditation, “When Jesus Wept,” cushioned by richly polyphonic string textures. The finale riffed on Billings’ Revolutionary War anthem “Chester,” with saucy, skirling wind figurations sharpening the patriotic senses.
A different America was surveyed in American Nomad, a trumpet concerto by Twin Cities composer Steve Heitzeg.
“Nomad” is a kind of musical travelogue, tracing the imaginary wanderer of Heitzeg’s piece from New York City toward the West and California.
The traveler’s reactions are focused in the exuberant, multifaceted writing for solo trumpet, laced with jazzy stylings and suffused with the irrepressible curiosity of the American spirit.
American Nomad was written for Minnesota Orchestra trumpeter Charles Lazarus, and he performed the work with a familiar mastery, owning its every nook and cranny of expression.
The cadential episode in the finale brought particularly evocative playing, its collection of crazy slides and wailing glissandos wittily parsed by Lazarus above a plinking electric guitar and slithering violin harmonics.
American Nomad lasts half an hour and is an unashamedly accessible and emotional piece, packed with catchy tunes and pin-sharp evocations of both landscape and urban environments.
Heitzeg himself must surely be struck by the extra resonance his piece has acquired in the five years since it was written. Its teeming generosity of spirit and openness to new experience now feel painfully at odds with our more inward-looking, mean-spirited present and seem almost to rebuke it.
The concert ended with Florence Price’s First Symphony, a piece rarely heard nowadays. Back in 1933 it was the first symphony by an African-American woman to be played by a major American orchestra (the Chicago Symphony), which makes it historically significant.
It’s a work that grows palpably in interest as it progresses. If the opening movement was cut-and-paste Dvořák, the beat of an African drum started adding interest to the brass chorales of the Largo.
The third movement “Juba” was a strutting African dance with ragtime connotations, while the finale whirligigged its way to a high-energy conclusion.
Was Price’s symphony worth playing? Indisputably. We need more concerts like Saturday evening’s which aim to spring surprises on classical audiences and more orchestras which are not afraid of springing them.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.