Minnesota Orchestra/ Vanska, Barbican Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Osmo Vanska is clearly a very good thing for Minnesota.

You can sense when an orchestra is raising its game, pushing its boundaries, and playing to the limit of its possibilities. That was the feeling here: a decent orchestra made to sound a whole lot better by the sheer dynamism and musicality of its music director. I’ll wager Minnesota will be a very different orchestra by the end of Vanska’s existing contract in two years time.

For now it was the energy you came away humming, and to that end a little something showy and kinetic from home kick-started the proceedings. The night before John Adams’ Dr. Atomic premieres in London a smaller bang, if you like, was provided by Slonimsky’s Earbox. This is essentially Adams’ Stravinsky’s homage. The musical snakes and ladders of the explosive opening throw up all manner of harmonic incident and we even appear to drop in on Petrushka’s Shrovetide Fair, such is the motoric, almost folksy, manner of the writing. But ultimately the pulsations are pure Adams: another hairy ride in one of his fast machines which on this occasion had Vanska and the orchestra taking awkward corners with Formula One skill. Me, I liked the still centre of the piece where one viola echoed by the others seemed almost to invoke the Samuel Barber which followed.

Joshua Bell played the Violin Concerto with rapt, confidential, beauty, slipping into the salon-like texture of the opening so unassumingly that he might easily have been just another member of the Minnesota string section. It was that awareness of his surroundings, that chamber music intuition, that made this performance so revealing. The virtuosic finale still sounds like an afterthought to me – a last ditch attempt to get some fireworks into the piece. Bell took those in his stride like a mischievous Puck gone bad. And as if that weren’t enough he’d brought an encore – an insane set of variations, an American “Souvenir”, by Vieuxtemps. What to say? “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in poncy harmonics is just so French.

Finally, the deadly serious business of displaying the orchestra’s classical credentials. Vanska’s account of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony was driven by an almost delirious vitality, a cut-to-the-bone incisiveness in which the Minnesota strings were very much the dominant force, somewhat, I felt, at the expense of the winds. Still, Vanska undoubtedly engendered a sense of communal excitement at the work’s audacity and perennial newness. And that’s always a good sign.