Minnesota Orchestra – June 7, 2009

Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis MN
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Michael GatonskaIn autumn woods a traveler
Pyotr Ilyich TchaikovskyPiano Concerto No. 3, Op. 75
Felix MendelssohnPiano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25
Modest MussorgskyPictures at an Exhibition (orch. Maurice Ravel, 1922)

Stephen Hough (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vӓnskӓ

On this unseasonably cool, gray, drizzly, fluorescent Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Orchestra and music director Osmo Vӓnskӓ made their home venue bright and inviting with two romantic-era piano concerti, book-ended by two tone poems.

The concert (the last of four on the weekend) opened with In autumn woods a traveler by the American composer Michael Gatonska, and while there is no real music here, it does contain some lush orchestration and colorful use of percussion to vividly convey what the composer calls a “ramble through the woods.”  Gatonska even calls on the percussion section for radio static, which very nicely provides the sound of a nearby stream.

Nothing here is really out-of-place; the orchestration occasionally reminds of Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland, and demands precise timing, which the Minnesota Orchestra very ably delivered.  Unlike quite a bit of modern orchestral ‘music,’ this is an enjoyable curiosity of impressionism. However, like many other modern compositions, this contains precious little discernable music, save for two or three lovely melodies from the woodwinds, but music really isn’t part of Gatonska’s premise here.  A friend of mine (who graciously scored the concert tickets) suggested that In autumn woods… could make for a really good film soundtrack.  While this is true, it stands very nicely by itself as an accessible piece of modern impressionism.  Believe it or not, it actually makes me want to look for recordings of some of his other work, to see what other sounds and atmospheres Gatonska can draw out of an orchestra.


British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough then came onstage for a live recording of Tchaikovsky’s single-movement Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Minnesota Orchestra. (Hough is recording the cycle of all three Tchaikovsky piano concerti with the Minnesota for Britain’s Hyperion label.)  As with some of Tchaikovsky’s other orchestral works, his signature rhythms and style aren’t quite apparent and distinct until after the first few bars, after which he hands off his themes and melodies from the piano to the orchestra. The composer was fond of rapid, busy, demanding lines on the basses and lower brass, which the Minnesota Orchestra handled with aplomb, although the closing was slightly disjointed. Since the orchestra had four chances to get it right over the course of the weekend, this performance is probably not the one that will make it to CD.  Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto certainly isn’t his finest, but was well-played by Stephen Hough on this afternoon.


It’s a shame that Hough and the Minnesota were recording the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, because after the intermission they delivered a thoroughly enjoyable reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one that I would choose to hear over the Tchaikovsky.  Hough was brilliant with Mendelssohn’s dramatic opening lines, playing adroitly rather than manhandling them with too much fortissimo. Likewise, the celli and basses handled Mendelssohn’s rolling movement with precision, and it is also here that a few echoes of Mozart are evident in Mendelssohn’s composition.  Orchestra Hall’s outstanding acoustics spotlighted Hough’s very artistic and precise cadenza, particularly the quiet, breathtaking passage in which he was delicately joined by the woodwinds.

(Minus 10,000 points to the audience members who had a simultaneous coughing spell just then!  Argh!  Haven’t you people heard of cough drops??!!)

The lovely E-Major section gave the Orchestra’s basses a chance to demonstrate some remarkably fine intonation, while Hough was wonderfully colorful in the conclusion, particularly in the D7 passages with delicate string underpinning.  I hope that since the microphones were already set up that they recorded this performance, because Hough and the orchestra were excellent here.


The Orchestra closed the concert with a famous tone poem, the 1922 Maurice Ravel orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. Ravel’s scoring demands that the Minnesota Orchestra were augmented by additional musicians, including an extra harpist and percussionists. Principal trumpeter Manny Laureano was an excellent soloist (as usual) in the opening “Promenade” and especially later in the “Catacombae” section.  Osmo Vӓnskӓ took an unusually slow pace through Pictures, but the trade-off is that the audience got extra time to appreciate Ravel’s colorful orchestration and challenging rhythms, particularly in the “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells” and “Limoges (the Marketplace).”  The brass were particularly excellent in “Catacombae,” with a strong, powerful, stark delivery, followed by an excellent (and almost frightening!) reading of “Baba-Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs.”  Aside from my quibbles with Vӓnskӓ‘s slower pacing, he and the orchestra were wonderful in the concluding movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” and the percussionists, led by Brian Mount and Jason Arkis, were especially magnificent.


Most American audiences tend to begin their applause immediately after the final note of a performance has finished, but they would do well to emulate audiences at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

When concert-goers there know that a concert in the Concertgebouw is being recorded, they graciously wait four or five seconds for the last echoes of music to dissipate, so that recording engineers can have a clean cut-off. Once that happens, Concertgebouw audiences spend plenty of time and energy showering the musicians with applause.  I wish people here in the United States would do the same, out of consideration for people who buy recordings of these performances later on.


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