It's not all about Osmo.
The Minnesota Orchestra's three-week festival of music by Jean Sibelius may be the flagship event of Osmo Vänskä's final season as music director, but for now, the center of attention is Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä.
Vähälä will solo on Sibelius' very popular Violin Concerto this week, but on Friday night she did something only accomplished by a handful of violinists. She and the orchestra performed the original version of the concerto, which the composer pulled from circulation after it premiered to lackluster reviews.
He subsequently revised it, and the original was never again played in his lifetime; the Sibelius family's permission is required to perform it. The consensus among scholars and soloists is that it's more difficult to play, but Vähälä met its ample demands with marvelous musicianship. Slotted between Sibelius' Sixth and First Symphonies, it proved a resounding star turn.
Not to say that Vänskä and the orchestra didn't achieve their customary magic with Sibelius symphonies. Both the First and Sixth were given briskly paced interpretations pulsing with energy and striking a bittersweet emotional tenor. But Vähälä's playing on the early-model concerto was breathtaking, full of fluidity and flair, her tone full-bodied and resonant.
Most of the elements that have made the oft-played revision so popular — the dark beauty of the Adagio, the bright, bouncy theme of the frolicsome finale — are in the original as well. But the first take was longer, especially in the first movement, thanks in large part to a second cadenza that allowed Vähälä to bring forth a more mournful character.
You seldom see a partial standing ovation after a work's opening movement, but the violinist earned one.
Achieving the proper balance between soloist and orchestra is always a challenge, but Vänskä and Vähälä seemed precisely on the same page. Her playing was technically impeccable throughout, but the work also showcased some splendid orchestral colors, the low strings creating a mood of foreboding at the Adagio's opening and lending a sad striving to the finale's main theme.
While Sibelius could indulge his darkest inclinations as eloquently as any composer, this program offered glimpses of his playful side. In addition to the delightful dance of the Violin Concerto's finale, the opening of the Sixth Symphony swirled with a sunny gaiety. But the most memorable portion of the symphony proved the propulsive, urgent finale, tension building with each surging crescendo and withdrawal.
The concert's second half was given over to Sibelius' First, a work that set out onto haunting terrain with Gabriel Campos Zamora's hypnotic opening clarinet solo, but was soon charging forth at a tempo so fast that several notes were given short shrift. After a welcome breath of heart-on-sleeve romanticism on the slow movement, Vänskä's emphasis on brisk pacing returned in an explosive Scherzo.
Those seeking a boost to their pandemic-battered spirit akin to what was delivered by Sibelius' Second Symphony on the festival's opening weekend could find what they need in the closing movement of the First. Vänskä and the orchestra suffused it with a fascinating blend of grief and determination, an insistent urgency that sounded profoundly powerful.
Thurs.-Fri.: Symphonies No. 3 and 4, plus Elina Vähälä playing the revised Violin Concerto.
Sat.-Jan. 16: Symphony No. 5, with commentary by Osmo Vänskä and orchestra violist Sam Bergman.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $35-$109, 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. firstname.lastname@example.org