An odd sound wafted through Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday evening — that of a string quartet playing.

The music was the fourth of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets. The occasion was the first in a string of 24 free, open-air chamber concerts the Minnesota Orchestra is giving this month.

It’s the first step in what the orchestra calls “a phased return to live concerts,” recompensing ticket holders for the cancellation of concerts planned for August and September — themselves a substitute for concerts lost when the last part of the 2019-20 season was obliterated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Being there on Tuesday felt like the new abnormal. To get in, you filled out a preconcert health questionnaire, put a face mask on, and were ushered into the basin of the plaza by a team of quietly efficient stewards who watched for social distancing.

Seats were arranged in pods of two, with 6 feet between each pair of people. Onstage seats for the musicians were also socially distanced, and string players kept their masks on while playing.

Passersby on Nicollet Mall gazed curiously at what probably looked like an avant-garde art installation, and some lingered for the performance.

Mozart’s Oboe Quartet opened the recital, led by the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal oboe, John Snow. It’s a piece that can seem inconsequential, but its mix of warm, companionable melody and al fresco elegance seemed a perfect antidote to months of cooped-up isolation and interminable Zoom meetings.

An effortlessly elegant player, Snow floated the balmy solo line poetically over an accompaniment of violin (Peter McGuire), viola (Jenny Seo) and cello (Beth Rapier).

Snow stayed on stage for Valerie Coleman’s “Tzigane,” a work for wind quintet that also featured Timothy Zavadil (clarinet), Fei Xie (bassoon), Gregory Milliren (flute) and Brian Jensen (horn). Described by Coleman as “a high-charged, passionate journey through Eastern Europe, by way of the Romani,” the piece bristles with spiky wind writing, tart turns of phrase, and some particularly delicious burbling on bassoon.

It couldn’t have been straightforward for the socially distanced players to hear each other clearly on an open-air stage with a tented awning on top. But the ensemble was good, and the piece — the first in a series by Black composers at the Peavey concerts — made a garrulously sparky impression.

An arrangement by Jennifer Higdon of the hymn “Amazing Grace” formed a segue to the Beethoven quartet that ended the recital. The violins of Sarah Grimes and Hanna Landrum were a little overshadowed in the sound mix (the concert was amplified) by Sifei Cheng’s viola and Tony Ross’ cello. The performance was a good one, however — alert and spirited, especially in the skittering finale.

Twilight was falling on Peavey Plaza as the last note sounded. This concert, though, was a necessary glint of light at a gloomy period — a first, sensitively planned step toward recovery for a normally busy, vibrant orchestra drastically muted by the coronavirus.

 

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.

 

Chamber Music on Peavey Plaza

With: Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

When: 7 p.m. Aug. 4-9, 11-16 and 18-23.

Tickets: Free, offered first to |ticket holders for canceled concerts, then to the general public via a drawing.

Health precautions: Masks required for entry. Attendees are also asked to do a preconcert screening online and present confirmation at the entry gate (on 11th St. near Target Atrium).

Info: minnesotaorchestra.org