Go big or go home. Bigger was better for the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Orchestra at an all-Jean Sibelius set-list under Osmo Vänskä at Carnegie Hall. As Vänskä settled onto the podium, hearty bravi filled the hall before he had even flicked his baton. Sink or swim through the brackish Baltic sea, the audience, a noticeable contingent hailing from the orchestra's home state, cheered vociferously – at the commencement of the second half, a shout rang out, "Go Vikings!", invoking the hometown NFL football team spirit. Sibelius  cheerleaders abounded.

Osmo Vänskä © Ann Marsden
Osmo Vänskä
© Ann Marsden
With good reason. Vänskä, who’d been appointed music director at the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003 through the 2014-15 season, announced his resignation in 2013 after management locked-out musicians in a labor dispute. Symphony seasons were cut and trimmed, notably a Sibelius-Carnegie Hall showcase planned for the 2013-14 season. Reappointed as music director through 2019, Finnish maestro Vänskä, a noted authority on Sibelius, worked big bang theories behind full-bodied tonalities at Carnegie Hall, first and third symphonies astride the violin concerto in D minor with soloist Hilary Hahn.

With diligent and authoritative podium language, big bloodletting was carved from Sibelius’ leaner bones. Expressive but sure-footed, the sound was big, but never unbridled, galloped but never rushed. Strengths played to cohesion and synchronicity among sections. Under polished soloists, symphonies held together under relentless drive, pulse and pace. Sometimes, however, upland fortissimi became lost in their own bellowing while lowland pianissimi bayed listlessly at Sibelius’ heels.

Austere and economic when compared to Sibelius' first and second symphonic romances, Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op.52 from 1907 is a work of understated beauty. In addition to the fourth symphony, the orchestra won a Grammy for its first recording in 2014 under Vänskä. Taken here, clean, lean color was suitable to Sibelius’ economic language. Intense fortissimi bulged overstated shades, like the intensely-articulated, vicelike Allegro moderato rinforzando. Lovely chorales and melodic episodes showed-off well-weighted strings, high to low, with adroit woodwinds. After a roaring lift-off, the Andantino affected pastoral themes.

Hahn honored Sibelius' deep affinity with the violin in the highly virtuosic Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op.47, written in 1904, revised a year later. In a scoop-neck, black bodysuit and floor-skimming black silk skirt with a fiery, abstract floral-poppy print, Hahn's liquid brilliance was matched to polished verve. Immersive and refined, she filled the extended cadenza with passion and shade. Her clarity and beauty of tone sometimes rendered the orchestra fitful, notably in the opening Allegro moderato, where themes swung on arpeggi and recapitulations. Firmed-up by the Allegro, ma non tanto, rapid-fire, exhilarating passages of staccati, octave runs and double stops gave a masterly finale.

String and woodwind color blossomed for the dark romances of Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op.39, Sibelius' work from 1899 of grand, joyous melodies. The Andante, ma non troppo solo clarinet carried a charismatic, opening melody accompanied by a well-weighted timpanist. A cohesive Andante and a melodic Scherzo led to a big bang Finale, orchestra whipped by Vänskä's exuberance. Thunderous brass in lush expression laid a well-paced climax.

Under Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, Sibelius complexities, glories and triumphs were immediate and accessible. American alacrity, with liberty and Sibelius for all.