Osmo Vänska is known for championing Scandinavian music, and this concert by the Minnesota Orchestra was true to form with a presentation of a late Carl Nielsen symphony alongside one of the most firmly established violin concertos in the repertoire.

Osmo Vänskä © Kaapo Kamu
Osmo Vänskä
© Kaapo Kamu

The program opened with Two Mountain Scenes, a work by the American composer Kevin Puts. Puts is no stranger to Minnesota audiences, as his opera Silent Night was commissioned and premiered by the Minnesota Opera. Tonight’s piece was another commission – a joint one by the Vail Valley Musical Festival and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

As Puts explained in pre-concert remarks to the audience, the piece consists of two highly contrasting movements. The first one – Maestoso – uses four trumpets to create the illusion of trumpet calls reverberating across a valley. The orchestra contributes a number of lyrical passages swelling to some major blocks of sound, punctuated by tuneful percussion effects. At times I heard suggestions of composers as diverse as Benjamin Britten and Hans Pfitzner.

The second movement – Furioso – suggests a mountain storm. Beginning with fervent string arpeggios, it turns into a veritable tour de force for the entire orchestra, including prominent woodwind passages along with a full battery of percussion instruments. The music builds to an overwhelming climax – ferocious and ecstatic. This highly accessible music was played with passion and ardor by the Minnesota musicians.

Following Puts, the orchestra presented Nielsen's final symphony. Completed in 1925 and subtitled Sinfonia semplice (Simple Symphony), Nielsen’s Sixth may be one of the biggest misnomers in symphonic music: it hardly seems simple. Reportedly, critics were baffled by the music when it was premiered, some referring to it as "peculiar."

In this performance, Vänska played up the quirkiness to maximum effect. In the first movement (Tempo giusto), the contrasts are great between the quietly genial opening, the fugue that follows, and the rather abrasive orchestral flourishes. The Minnesota woodwinds navigated their challenging passages impressively and ensemble was winsome. The second movement (Humoreske) came in marked contrast, with Nielsen giving us the classical music equivalent of a Bronx cheer – trombone glissandi and all. Whether by accident or by design, this movement sounds episodic and disjointed – and Vänska played those contrasts to the hilt.

The elegiac third movement provides a respite, but the quirkiness returned in spades in the final movement, replete with march motifs that may remind listeners of Charles Ives. Nielsen is in full “bulb nose-and-seltzer bottle” mode, even to the symphony's last notes played by the solo bassoon. Here again, Vänska and the Minnesota players delivered all of Nielsen’s ironic wit with incisive playing. In the process, they made the best possible case for this most curious of Nielsen symphonies.

Following intermission, the orchestra turned to more familiar musical terrain with the Violin Concerto in D major by Brahms. This is the kind of piece that, no matter how many times one encounters it, always comes across as a fresh, vibrant masterpiece. While undeniably challenging for the violin soloist, it is a work that is also characterized by a remarkable balance between the soloist and the orchestra. I like how Hubert Foss described the concerto as far back as 1878: “a song for the violin on a symphonic scale”.

In tonight’s performance, double-stops, extremely wide intervals, octave-chromatics, arpeggios in rapidly shifting progressions and many other thorny technical challenges confronted soloist Erin Keefe – all of which she managed with real aplomb. Even more impressive were the bigness of her sound and the sweetness of her tone. It is rare to encounter such symmetry between these important but often competing aspects in a concert performance of the Brahms, but these qualities were on full reveal in the first movement of the concerto. Clearly, this was no routine run-through – and the movement reached its pinnacle in the closing measures following the cadenza.

Melody abounds in the second movement, too (Adagio) – said to be based on a Bohemian folk tune. The important opening oboe solo was beautifully played, setting the stage for the violin passages that followed. In Keefe's hands, the entire movement sounded as if it was one unbroken string of melody.

Who doesn't love the third movement of this concerto? Right from the start, Keefe's "rondo theme in thirds à la hongroise" reminded one how easily Brahms bought Magyar flavor to his music. Here the joyful interplay between soloist and orchestra was infectious. In all, the performance was a triumph for both Keefe and the Minnesota Orchestra – and it made it the most impressive musical highlight of the evening.