It feels as if the goodbye has begun.
Now, whenever Osmo Vänskä strides to the podium at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall to conduct a symphony by his favorite composer, Jean Sibelius, audience members may be compelled to contemplate that this moment will never be duplicated.
Perhaps that tone of treasuring the present will be a constant over the course of the Minnesota Orchestra's three-week Sibelius Festival. The wintry centerpiece of Vänskä's 19th and final season as music director, it will feature all seven Sibelius symphonies. Considering that exquisite, probing and powerful interpretations of those symphonies might be the consummate achievement of Vänskä's tenure, this is a chance to be seized.
Friday evening's festival opener certainly left that impression. Curiously choosing to start at the end — with Sibelius' seventh and final symphony — it proved a deeply rewarding evening, brightened by a set of light and lively Sibelius Humoresques with violinist Stella Chen as soloist and a performance of Sibelius' Second Symphony that left my heart full to bursting.
But those seeking to relive past glories should be warned that Vänskä has seldom displayed interest in revisiting well-trod turf.
Both the Seventh and Second symphonies sounded considerably different than they did on the exceptional recordings the orchestra released in the past decade. Vänskä often emphasized the fragments that come together to form Sibelius' magical totalities, sometimes framing them with silences or coaxing you to lean in toward whispered pianissimos.
Friday's performance — which can be viewed online at mnorch.vhx.tv — launched with the Seventh Symphony, an ideal 22-minute exploration of the emotional peaks and valleys traversed within the six symphonies that preceded it. A weighty darkness wrestled with an exhilarating transcendence, Douglas Wright's trombone majestically soaring above the rich landscape of strings.
Finnish soprano Helena Juntunen was originally slated to sing three seldom-heard Sibelius songs. Alas, COVID-related visa issues kept her away, but Chen stepped in on short notice, offering five of Sibelius' six Humoresques. While the songs would have been an intriguingly intimate glimpse inside Sibelius' nature-loving heart, the Humoresques showed his playfulness.
Chen attacked them with dramatic expressiveness but never a hint of gravitas. Each was a light and lively crowd pleaser that Chen kept aloft with a buoyant spirit and technical precision. This was Sibelius indulging his most romantic inclinations, and Chen proved a simpatico interpreter, here engaging in wistful reflectiveness, there whistling a happy tune in the stratosphere of her violin's range. At this New Year's party, Chen was the bringer of jollity.
Yet the evening's climax was the Second Symphony, deeply involving from start to finish. Wide-ranging dynamics were skillfully employed, with the quietest moments often inviting listeners onward toward explosive crescendos. The bassoons cast a spell with their mysterious duet on the slow movement, Steven Campbell's tuba later providing a menacing undertow.
When a liberating catharsis burst forth from the strings on the finale, Vänskä seemed overflowing with passion on the podium, arms outstretched and upraised. It's a work that ends in triumph, and this performance deserved that description.
The standing ovation accorded it inspired an encore, a lovely arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne" that underlined the feeling that Friday was Vänskä's opening farewell.
Minnesota Orchestra's Sibelius Festival
When: Through Jan. 16
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $30-$130, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities freelance classical music writer. • firstname.lastname@example.org.