COVID testing, weeklong quarantines, face masks and an 8-foot extension of the platform to enable social distancing between the players. These are the exceptional measures required to make a Minnesota Orchestra concert happen in the coronavirus era.
Friday wasn't a typical evening, of course. There was no audience present — the concert was broadcast live on TPT-MN, Minnesota Public Radio and the orchestra's website (where this program can still be viewed) — and Orchestra Hall's warm acoustic had a slightly cavernous quality as a consequence.
Still, there were things to celebrate, not least the orchestra's first performance of a symphony since March. Social distancing math allowed only 42 players onstage, but that was perfect for Beethoven's First Symphony, led by the orchestra's former associate conductor William Eddins.
Conducting without a baton, using body language that ranged from muscular lunges to elegantly balletic hand gestures, Eddins elicited a performance that thrillingly combined trenchancy with a pronounced feeling for the music's many moments of lyricism and lightness.
Eddins' speeds were somewhat slower than has become usual in Beethoven, which gave string players in particular the room to properly etch the bustling rhythms of the opening movement, and lent a satisfying architectural profile to the music.
Both inner movements had a relaxed, unhurried quality in which wit and warmth emerged naturally. The finale had power aplenty, but delicacy, too, with none of the hell-for-leather histrionics that conductors often use to italicize the young Beethoven's sense of derring-do and adventure.
Eddins' interpretation was subtle and nuanced, and played with intelligence and alacrity by the orchestra. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a performance of the First Symphony more.
Earlier the hourlong program had started with two chamber music pieces, the first a string quartet by U.K.-based Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga.
The quartet (her second) is a single 15-minute movement, combining some of the raw abandon and joyfulness of Jamaican music with dashes of Bartókian astringency and dollops of cross-cultural Villa-Lobos in the textures. It's a strongly rhythmic piece spiced with dancing pizzicatos and growling cello tremolandos, and was played for all its worth by violinists Natsuki Kumagai and Catherine Schubilske, violist Gareth Zehngut and cellist Silver Ainomäe.
Back in pre-lockdown February, the orchestra appointed Marguerite Lynn Williams as its principal harp. Who could have imagined then that it would take eight months to make her debut.
That moment finally arrived on Friday, when she took center-stage in a performance of Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, a piece written in 1905 to demonstrate what the Érard company's double-action pedal harp could do. The camera caught a tantalizing glimpse of Williams' own harp pedals during an introduction to the piece, looking as complicated as a gear shifter on a semi.
Her playing, though, was mellifluously measured and seductive, with principal flute Adam Kuenzel and clarinetist Timothy Zavadil among the cast of six supporting players.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. • email@example.com