After all these seasonal surges of COVID, I'm ready for a different kind of surge — a big wave of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion to sweep away the long, dark winter of the pandemic with some exhilarating full-orchestra adrenaline bursts.
The Minnesota Orchestra obliged Friday evening. The seats of Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall may have been empty, but their enthusiasm and excitement was palpable during this live broadcast, available online at minnesotaorchestra.org.
After drawing on handfuls of musicians for chamber works through much of the winter, the orchestra gradually has grown in number over the course of its approximately biweekly concerts. And now we were up to the size of orchestra ideal for Mozart, or Igor Stravinsky entering his early 20th-century neoclassical period.
That was the music on the menu, and French conductor Fabien Gabel and the orchestra made a feast of it, a joyous celebration of spring refreshingly free of gravitas.
Not that the music lacked depth — far from it. Each work on the program bore engaging emotional layers, starting with the small-scale opener, "Shining Gate of Morpheus" by Jamaica-born, England-based composer Eleanor Alberga. It captivated immediately with a combination I wish more composers would use: French horn and string quartet.
It proved ideally dreamy for a piece inspired by the mythology of dreams. French horn soloist Ellen Dinwiddie Smith was excellent throughout, soothing the ear with sweet tones before flying off into get-up-and-go fanfares and erupting into urgent cries. The four string players from the orchestra proved ideal partners for her, eloquently evoking a varied mix of moods and resolving in a lovely dreamscape, Smith's horn seemingly serenading from a distant mountain.
Gabel's debut on the Orchestra Hall podium came on a suite from Stravinsky's ballet "Pulcinella," music that provided an epiphany for the composer in 1920, launching a period of drawing on old styles for inspiration. Although still not overly large, the orchestra produced a full, rich sound and a sense that the musicians are starting to hit their stride together.
Transporting solos came from the oboe of soon-to-retire John Snow, who cast a haunting spell on the ballet's Serenata and beguiled on the Gavotta. Erin Keefe's violin solos were equally compelling, and principal trumpet Manny Laureano sparked moments of melancholy and exuberance.
In finishing the concert with one of Mozart's masterpieces, Symphony No. 39, the orchestra drove home what a difference a public health emergency and consequent shutdown can make in perceptions of a piece. If the orchestra had inserted this into a program — or "Pulcinella," for that matter — a few seasons ago, it would have been at risk of a perfunctory performance. This is music these players know extremely well.
But they made something passionate of the symphony, precise and explosive in all the right places, Gabel guiding mood shifts both smooth and swift. The slow movement was as contemplative and reverent as a prayer vigil, the minuet full of fine solos and delicious dynamic contrast. And the finale was as playful and sprightly as one could wish, a rollicking breakneck gallop.
Gabel came off as an old-school European conductor, leaning on convention in his gestures and interpretations. Had I been in the hall, maybe I would have sensed chemistry between him and the orchestra, but via computer (minnesotaorchestra.org) it felt more like a satisfying reunion with some familiar music that they'd perhaps forgotten how much they enjoyed playing.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With: Conductor Fabien Gabel.
What: Music by Mozart, Eleanor Alberga and Igor Stravinsky.
Where: minnesotaorchestra.org cqbr