Minnesota Orchestra/Vanska, Barbican Hall, London
Tuesday 03 March 2009
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 was premiered in London, a smaller bang, if you like, was provided by his Slonimsky's Earbox. This is essentially Adams' Stravinsky 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. But ultimately the pulsations are pure Adams: another hairy ride in one of his fast machines, which had Vanska and orchestra taking awkward corners with Formula One skill.
I liked the still centre of the piece, where one viola echoed by others almost invoked the Samuel Barber that 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 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 – a last-ditch attempt to get in some fireworks. 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 called Souvenir d'Amérique by Henri Vieuxtemps. Basically, "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in poncy harmonics.
Finally, the serious business of displaying the orchestra's classical credentials. Vanska's account of the Eroica Symphony was driven by an almost delirious vitality, an incisiveness in which the strings were the dominant force, somewhat, I felt, at the expense of the winds. Still, Vanska engendered a sense of communal excitement at the work's audacity and perennial newness. Always a good sign.
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