Osmo Vänskä has always been an energetic, dynamic conductor. Did we always know that he is also a supreme sifter and balancer of orchestral textures, a creator of tingling sonic subtleties?
If not, we know it now. The Mahler symphony series he has been gradually working through with the Minnesota Orchestra has been full of fresh detail and revelations, created by Vänskä’s super-sharp ear and the pinpoint reactions of the players.
Friday evening’s performance of the Seventh Symphony at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis confirmed all that has gone before and was a riveting wake-up call to those who still see the Seventh as somehow a less consummate, more problematic work than Mahler’s other nine symphonies.
In many ways, the most remarkable playing and conducting came in the three shorter movements that occupy the center of the symphony.
The scherzo bristled with nervous energy, scraps of melodic material scuttling round the orchestra like a cracked vessel trying to piece itself together again.
Concertmaster Erin Keefe’s violin solos were sweet but never schmaltzy, and Vänskä’s insistence on precise dynamics highlighted Mahler’s acutely innovative ear for instrumental combinations.
The first Nachtmusik movement opened with atmospheric horn calls from Michael Gast and Ellen Dinwiddie Smith and piquant interjections from principal clarinet Gabriel Campos Zamora.
Vänskä’s ability to hold multiple lines of music in democratic interplay together was again evident and created a silken cushion for the xylophone’s short solo to drop on.
The second Nachtmusik was similarly pellucid, allowing the delicate contributions of the guitar and mandolin to be clearly registered.
Both outer movements of the Seventh Symphony are considerably more weighty. The opening movement sported the rare, lugubrious tones of a tenor horn evocatively played by R. Douglas Wright.
Vänskä’s emphasis on sharp rhythmic attacks helped emphasize how craggy and expressionistic Mahler’s orchestration became in the wake of the Sixth Symphony, as if its tragedy continued to cast a trauma in the Seventh.
The oasis of calm at the movement’s heart was serenely realized by the players. But there was raw energy, too, and an element of visual excitement when the horn section obeyed Mahler’s injunction to swivel their instruments skyward in one of the most fizzing climaxes.
The finale bounces like a hyperactive puppy and can be difficult to leash effectively. Vänskä gave the music plenty of leeway while keeping it firmly on course for an exuberant final peroration that had the audience roaring.
What is the Seventh Symphony “about”? Commentators often say it is about a journey from night to day, and if you like to think in metaphors, it is.
But in this brilliantly visceral performance, it was first and foremost about the thrill of rediscovering the phantasmagorical world of Mahler’s orchestra and the teeming messages it sends about human resilience and ingenuity.
It was a hugely optimistic statement for these anxious times and fueled the growing impression that this Minnesota Orchestra Mahler cycle may well be the most significant achievement so far of Osmo Vänskä’s music directorship.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.