While making its way to South Africa, Minnesota Orchestra stopped in London Monday to play a concert at the prestigious BBC Proms festival. Critical reaction was mixed to the orchestra's all-American program featuring music by Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Charles Ives, possibly because British audiences strongly associate music director Osmo Vänskä with his award-winning recordings of Beethoven and Sibelius.
For the Times newspaper's classical music critic Geoff Brown, the sight of Vänskä conducting American music was a tad disconcerting.
"Finding this tough, ascetic figure cocking his left leg at a jaunty angle or jiggling about like an electrified spider made me draw a deep breath," Brown wrote. "He doesn't act like that conducting Sibelius."
Still, Brown relished principal trumpet Manny Laureano's "superb" solos in the bluesy slow movement of Gershwin's Piano Concerto. He also liked the moments of quiet, nostalgic recollection in Charles Ives' Second Symphony, describing them as "beautifully rendered by Vänskä's players."
For Bernard Hughes at the Arts Desk, a British website covering the arts, the choice of Ives' Second Symphony was "a bit dull," given the composer's abundance of more innovative works.
And although Hughes praised Vänskä's unearthing of instrumental detail in Gershwin's concerto, overall he found the concert "undermined by cautious tempos," with orchestral playing that "only periodically caught fire."
George Hall of the Financial Times disagreed. He judged the Minnesota Orchestra players "alert and precise from the get-go" in Bernstein's "Candide" Overture, which opened the evening "with a burst of vitality."
Hall also admired the Gershwin concerto performance, praising both pianist Inon Barnatan and conductor Vänskä for underlining "the score's sophistication as well as its flirtations with modernism."
An unusual encore caught some listeners by surprise. A rendition of "Shosholoza," a South African miners' song, found the orchestra singing along to its own accompaniment. That was certainly an unusual sight at the eight-week Proms extravaganza, dubbed the "world's greatest classical music festival." The orchestra detoured to the London event en route to South Africa, with the players arriving Tuesday in Cape Town for their five-city tour.
"A knockout punch," was Brown's verdict of the "Shosholoza" song for the Times, "delivered with bone-shaking panache by the orchestra's singing musicians. South Africa, look out."
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.