The Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, featured three famous composers (Brahms , Sibelius and Nielsen) – but relatively unfamiliar compositions by the latter two, both of which appeared in the first half of the program.  

Nielsen’s Pan and Syrinx, a “pastoral scene” from Greek antiquity for orchestra composed in 1918, describes the courtship of the god Pan (a half-goat creature) and the nymph Syrinx.  It’s no ordinary courtship, but rather a headlong pursuit of the nymph, whose fervent prayer to be turned into a water reed is answered. Undeterred, Pan fashions the reed into a pan-pipe which he plays. As in other Pan-inspired orchestral works, Nielsen’s orchestral palette is colorful, and Vänska and the Minnesota Orchestra brought those colors to life beautifully.  Powerful passages were counterbalanced with solos by the flute, other woodwinds and cello.  The percussion instrumentation called for is extensive (tambourine, ratchet, xylophone and concert bells in addition to the more standard fare) – yet these were used sparingly, adding splashes of color in just the right places. At eight minutes long, Pan and Syrinx seemed just about perfect – an interesting novelty that was surely new to most people in the audience.

The core of the program’s first half was the Sibelius Third Symphony. Vänska and the Minnesota Orchestra are in the midst of recording their Sibelius complete symphony cycle, which will conclude with recording sessions of the Third, Sixth and Seventh in the upcoming days. Premiered in 1907, the Symphony no. 3 in C major may be the least-known of Sibelius’ seven symphonies. The composer referred to it as his “beloved and least fortunate child”. Sometimes called Sibelius’ “Pastoral” Symphony, it has a leaner orchestral texture that, in the right hands, comes across with as much persuasive power as the composer’s more popular First, Second and Fifth Symphonies.

Vänska and the Minnesota musicians gave a stellar performance. The first movement, which unfolds in sonata form, had a propulsive character that was particularly effective in the exposition, development and recapitulation. The second movement features some of Sibelius’ most gorgeous writing for the woodwinds, which were masterfully performed by the Minnesota players. The main theme is taken up later by the strings – particularly the cellos and violas, which sounded silky and rich. In the final movement, the fragmentary thematic strands come together in a majestic blaze of glory, providing an opportunity for the Minnesota horn players to really shine. Vänska proved yet again why he has come to be regarded as one of today’s most ardent and effective Sibelius specialists. When played this well, it is possible to consider the Third Symphony as every bit as accomplished as the composer’s most popular works in the genre.

Following intermission, Vänska and the orchestra were joined by the pianist André Watts for a performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The program billed the concert as “Piano Legends”. Watts may well be one, but this performance of the concerto couldn’t be characterized as “legendary”; unfortunately, it was an interpretation that never really soared.

In the first movement, rather than delivering Brahms’ sweeping flow, things seemed more episodic. There was too much reliance on the pedal, which in the lively acoustics of Orchestra Hall meant that some important piano phrases sounded inarticulate. Moreover, some playing in the piano’s upper register was drowned out by heavy-handed treatment of the bass-line.  The second movement Allegro appassioniato was taken at a deliberate tempo that seemed at cross-purposes with the impassioned drama inherent in the score. Things improved noticeably in the third movement Andante, where Watts brought forth great poetry and even mystery in the rhapsodic ruminations on the main theme. The magical mood was marred only by an apparent memory lapse midway through the movement. The important cello solo passages that begin and end this movement were played beautifully. The final movement Allegretto grazioso was even more successful, with Watts and the orchestra treating the rondo-like theme deftly: all grace, elegance and charm. It’s Brahms at his most light-hearted – and it was captured beautifully.