This concert by the Minnesota Orchestra under conductor Rafael Payare, in his first guest appearance, delivered musical contrasts in solid, mainstream interpretations. Paul Dukas’ L’Apprenti sorcier is no stranger to concert audiences. Payare’s interpretative approach was conventional for the most part – except that the mysterious opening was stretched out just a tad too much, to the degree that some of the opening suspense was lost. The main section was lively, Payare paying close attention to the fact that the piece is a scherzo. With a jaunty bassoon and other highly effective woodwind playing set against the strings – not to mention lively percussion including some dynamite concert bell playing – it was a captivating performance. The only drawback in the effectiveness of the ensemble were a few trumpet entrance bloopers.

Virginie Verrez © Dario Acosta
Virginie Verrez
© Dario Acosta

Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez joined the orchestra to perform Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade. Composed in 1912, the piece is very representative of the Parisian obsession with “all things Eastern” at this particular time in its musical history. Ravel’s song cycle is drawn from highly descriptive poetry inspired by the Orient by Tristan Klingsor, a fellow member of Les Apaches – a group of Parisian artists, musicians and writers who sought a dramatic departure from the artistic conventions of the day.

Ravel’s composition is one of the most successful of these creations. The opening movement Asie is a kind of travelogue describing all manner of sights and sounds. Verrez made the most of it all, with expressive singing and a wonderful stage presence that spoke (additional) volumes. English translations of Klingsor’s poems were displayed overhead, but there was hardly any need for them.

Verrez’s voice is perfectly suited to Ravel’s music, giving us dark hues in the contemplative sections along with contrasting bright climaxes. If anything, the more introspective second and third movements in the cycle were even more effective, with the final one, L’Indifférent, achieving a level of special magic one rarely encounters in concert. Payare delivered fine orchestral support, with the Minneapolis players blending beautifully with the singer – neither overwhelming her nor receding too far into the background. This Shéhérazade was easily the most impressive musical highlight of the evening.

Following the intermission, Maestro Payare and the Minneapolis players made a major change in musical gears, delivering a solid reading of Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 in E minor. From the very opening bars, Payare set about to present the simple rising and falling theme in authoritative terms. Through Brahms’ sometimes-complex development, Payare was never at a loss as to where he was heading. Certainly, he avoided any suggestion of critic Eduard Hanslick’s famous depiction of this movement at the symphony’s première – “like being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people”.  At the same time, though, I found that the lack of dynamic contrasts resulted in the movement losing some of its impact, as several important passages seemed stuck on one dynamic level (“loud”).

As horn solos go, the opening of second movement of Brahms 4 certainly counts as one of the more prominent ones in the repertoire. In this performance, the declamation wasn’t quite as forceful as I would have liked. But thereafter, the Andante moderato movement turned out to be a very special one. The delicate woodwind and pizzicato string passages were rapturous. Payare gave us more than mere beautiful phases, too; in his crafting of the musical argument, he turned this movement into its own special adventure.

The scherzo that followed was bright and energetic – somewhat more stolid than some interpretations, yet cheerful and lively. In the finale, Payare and the orchestra returned to the flavor of the first movement, with the seemingly endlessly repeated theme being taken up in a myriad of different guises. It can be tricky to pull off, but Payare kept up the tension throughout – even in the middle section which is where some conductors can lose momentum. The woodwind passages were highly effective, the timpani particularly incisive, and low brass impressive in their heft. But as in the Dukas, the trumpets encountered difficulties in several of their entrances, which marred the otherwise precision-ensemble.

This concert was an auspicious debut for Rafael Payare in Minneapolis. His Dukas and Brahms were solid “mainline” interpretations, while in the Ravel the conductor achieved some very special moments, while proving to be an effective collaborator with the soloist. I will be interested to hear more from him in concert.