A large chunk of Tchaikovsky, more Mahler concerts and recordings, plus a one-off gig at the home of the prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These are a few of the highlights from the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2017-18 season, announced Friday morning.
Central to the orchestra’s season is a “Tchaikovsky Marathon,” with six concerts kicking off the new year in 2018. Sixteen works by the Russian composer will be featured, including the six numbered symphonies, and the rarely played Second and Third Piano Concertos.
Music director Osmo Vänskä leads all of the Tchaikovsky concerts. Shortly afterward he takes the Minnesota players to Chicago for the orchestra’s first appearance (Jan. 28) in the Windy City in nearly 40 years.
Beethoven and Sibelius, both Vänskä specialties, are on the Chicago program, plus more Tchaikovsky. Are these choices too obvious for the occasion? Probably. Chicago audiences are thoroughly familiar with core repertoire pieces, and a dash of novelty might have paid higher dividends.
A degree of conservatism also marks the Minnesota Orchestra’s celebration of American composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth centennial in 2018. The main event is a screening of “West Side Story” (Feb. 15-17) with Bernstein’s magnificent score played live by the orchestra.
Three other Bernstein pieces — “On the Waterfront,” “Fancy Free” and “Chichester Psalms” — are spread over two further concerts in May and June 2018. These are strong programming choices, to be sure, but the opportunity to air less familiar works like Bernstein’s symphonies, or his weird and wonderful “Mass,” has been missed.
The 2017-18 season is a particularly good one for piano lovers. Inon Barnatan, André Watts, Kirill Gerstein, Alessio Bax and Louis Lortie will all make solo appearances. So will the Minnesota Orchestra’s own players, several of whom step forward as soloists.
Concertmaster Erin Keefe’s performance of Kurt Weill’s underappreciated Violin Concerto is an obvious date for the diary (March 15-17, 2018). But look out also for James Stephenson’s Low Brass Concerto — one of three world premieres in the 2017-18 season — where four of the orchestra’s brass players strut their solo paces (June 14-16, 2018).
Rufus Wainwright is the marquee attraction (Dec. 2, 2017) in the new season’s “Live at Orchestra Hall” series, where the Minnesota Orchestra trades licks with artists from pop, jazz, Broadway or world music backgrounds.
Elsewhere in the “Live” strand there’s a partial feeling of déjà vu, with return visits from Audra McDonald, Ben Folds and the New Standards nudging out the possibility of fresh faces on the Orchestra Hall platform.
The sheer number of “Live,” holiday and family concerts in the 2017-2018 season — more than 40 percent of 2017-18 programs fall into these categories — is a sharp reminder of how versatile orchestral players need to be in the modern era, where appealing to the widest possible range of musical tastes is a pressing priority.
The trick (a difficult one) is to cater to that broader demographic without watering down what has traditionally been the core mission of the symphony orchestra: to play classical music to a high standard, mixing old, familiar works with those that are newer and more challenging.
In that context, the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2017-18 season errs on the safe side, playing mainly to known strengths, and treating with caution the more adventurous repertoire that may be a harder sell at the box office.
It’s an understandable strategy given today’s uncertain cultural climate. Whether, in the longer term, it is the right one for sustaining the Minnesota Orchestra as a vibrant, forward-looking cultural institution is more open to question.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.