October 23, 2015
Opera without words. That's what I felt I experienced at Friday evening's Minnesota Orchestra concert. Each of the three works performed at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall was suffused with drama, each performance full of flair and flamboyance, conflicts roiling and resolving.
But that's what you get when you have a conductor on the podium who has worked in the pits of many of the world's great opera houses. Slovakia's Juraj Valcuha may have been making his Minnesota Orchestra debut, but he and the musicians seemed to forge a bond quickly, concurring on their desire to make the program a showcase for big, powerful sounds that swell with emotion and excitement. And exciting it was.
It helped that the evening opened with the thrill ride that is Richard Strauss' "Don Juan." It's always been a fine piece for getting adrenaline racing, what with its garrulous gallops and full-throated French horn calls, but you'll seldom hear it played better than this, its grand gestures complemented by soft solos from violinist Erin Keefe and oboist John Snow that sounded like compelling confidences being shared. And Valcuha was great fun to watch, his baton work graceful, his larger cues resulting in him seemingly recoiling from the orchestra's explosions.
But the name on the lips of most patrons as they stepped out into the rainy night Friday was surely that of violinist Jennifer Koh. The freshly minted winner of Musical America's "Instrumentalist of the Year" was the soloist for Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto.
Composed in 1916, it's a landmark of modernism, and Koh demonstrated that she is as adept at creating drama as Valcuha. From her opening emergence from the hum of the orchestra, her tone rang out high and beautiful, a trait that held true throughout the many musical twists thrown at her by the work's flowing wordless stories.
It's a piece with a lot of uncertainty and a fair amount of anxiety bubbling beneath, but Koh gave it an extraordinarily confident interpretation. Its shifting moods were negotiated brilliantly, her cries of defiance above the ensemble assertive and searing. The climax was a cadenza that began with tense tones, eerie and haunted, but built into a flurry of aggressively bowed double stops. And Koh is an engagingly demonstrative player who pours plenty of physicality into her performances.
The drama didn't let up on Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, another work full of myriad moods. Valcuha and the orchestra made all of its tricky segues between calm and chaotic (and back) sound smoothly organic, the big blaring tuttis of the opening movement giving way to a scherzo more about the parts than the sum, various tandems pairing up within the orchestra. The elegy at its center proved the best showcase for the orchestra's skills, almost topped by a majestic finale with hints of vulnerability. It brought an appropriately gripping close to a dramatic night at the concert hall.
Who: The Minnesota Orchestra with conductor Juraj Valcuha and violinist Jennifer Koh
What: Works by Richard Strauss, Karol Szymanowski and Bela Bartok
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Tickets: $96-$29, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Capsule: Deep and dramatic, it's a compelling program.
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