Stephen Paulus was born in New Jersey, but lived most of his life in the Twin Cities. When he died two years ago, aged 65, he was in his prime as a composer. The Minnesota Orchestra paid tribute to him on Thursday morning, in its first performance of Paulus’ “Mass for a Sacred Place.”

Originally written to fill the cavernous spaces of Washington National Cathedral, the “Mass” made a more intimate impression in the acoustically tighter Orchestra Hall. That was not necessarily a disadvantage: The tender, unaccompanied “Sanctus” worked beautifully, shaped lovingly by conductor Osmo Vänskä, and held expertly in tune by the 90 voices of the Minnesota Chorale.

Earlier, the singers achieved impressive unanimity on the jabbing staccato accents of the “Gloria.” The singers responded vividly to Vänskä’s sculpting of the opening “Kyrie,” where Manny Laureano’s trumpet solo had special plangency.

Richly blended contributions from the cellos and double basses brought gravitas and solemnity to the accompaniment. They were there again in the “Agnus Dei,” with Vänskä engineering a rapt, breath-catching conclusion, tapered to the brink of inaudibility. It was impossible not to think of Paulus at that moment. He passed too soon. And this Minnesota Orchestra performance was a moving tribute to his memory.

Bach and Ginastera

The concert started with Bach’s First “Brandenburg” Concerto, in what would probably rate nowadays as an old-fashioned interpretation — old-fashioned mainly because it wasn’t played on instruments of Bach’s own period, with all the extra tang and zing they bring to baroque music.

There was, though, much to savor in this performance by a scaled-down ensemble of 20 players, not least the stylish, sweet-toned leadership of Peter McGuire, who took the violino piccolo part, and Joseph Peters’ plaintive oboe solo in the second movement.

Between the Bach and Paulus pieces, a hidden gem was discovered. Alberto Ginastera was born 100 years ago in Buenos Aires, although remarkably little has been done by classical organizations to mark the composer’s centenary. The Minnesota Orchestra put that right in a sparkling performance of Ginastera’s Harp Concerto.

It’s an impressive piece of writing, peppered with imaginative percussion detail — with more than two dozen individual instruments, requiring five players — and rumbling with the rhythms of outdoor life on Ginastera’s beloved pampas.

The orchestra’s principal harp, Kathy Kienzle, was an exceptional soloist, distilling a sense of inwardness in the concerto’s quieter moments, and displaying a wonderfully flexible technique in the cadenza launching the finale.

Vänska and the orchestra lent incisive, sharply etched support, especially in the inventive opening movement. It was like the magic realism of Latin American literature set to music, a headily kinetic experience.

Vänskä Conducts Paulus Mass

What: The orchestra’s first performance of a mass by the late Stephen Paulus.

When: 8 p.m. Fri and Sat.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

Tickets: $29-$79, minnesotaorchestra.org.
 

Terry Blain is a Twin Cities music and theater writer.