It’s not unusual for an orchestra to start its new season with a fanfare, but few are bold enough to start it with a piece which initially sounds like one, before turning into something decidedly less festive.
Einojuhani Rautavaara’s “A Requiem in Our Time” is scored for 13 brass players and four percussionists, and was written in 1953 in memory of the composer’s mother.
It made a solemnly resplendent impression at the Minnesota Orchestra’s season-opening concert at Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning.
Skittering horns swapped nervous riffs with lower brass chorales in the mood flips of the second movement, trumpets made squawking squad-car noises in the “Dies Irae,” and a mournful calm descended in the concluding “Lacrymosa.”
Not a conventionally upbeat curtain-raiser, perhaps — but one which seemed an honest, curiously bracing commentary on the benighted times we live in.
There were more bold choices after intermission, as American composer Elliott Carter’s “Three Illusions for Orchestra” got its first Minnesota Orchestra performance.
Carter was a creatively sprightly 96 when he wrote it, and the piece has all the gestural economy and mastery of sonority often associated with a great composer’s final period.
Osmo Vänskä’s patient sifting of Carter’s luminous textures paid particular dividends in the discontinuous melodic threads of the opening “Micomicón” movement, and in the strange, spectral plinkings of percussion in the finale.
Between the Rautavaara and Carter came Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which seemed a tamely conservative choice by comparison.
But Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen gave a remarkably fresh, unhackneyed account of one of the most overplayed concertos in the repertoire.
Glinting clarity of articulation was the key to his interpretation — even in rapid runs each note pinged out attractively and seemed to have its natural position in the phrasing.
The finale danced with verve and elasticity, and even the massively muscle-flexing cadenza in the opening movement didn’t tempt Pohjonen into cheap displays of flashiness and posturing.
All told, this was a highly impressive Orchestra Hall debut, full of engagingly incisive and insightful playing. It would be good to hear more of Pohjonen in future seasons.
The concert ended with an English classic still infrequently heard in America — Edward Elgar’s breakout work of 1899, the “Enigma Variations.”
The piece was written by Elgar as a portrait gallery of 13 friends, each depicted musically before the composer himself signs off in a rumbustious final variation.
Vänskä’s take on the “Enigmas” eschewed the kind of reverential approach it sometimes gets, stifling the music’s sense of fun and sheer originality.
The central “Nimrod” variation was a case in point. Often treated funereally, Vänskä gave it positivity and a warmly life-affirming sense of purpose — aptly, given that it reflects the character of Elgar’s beloved friend August Jaeger.
The orchestra provided sharp characterizations throughout, and if the “E.D.U.” finale seemed a bit rushed and excitable in spots, the enthusiasm was understandable, and infectious.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.
What: Osmo Vänskä conducts pianist Juho Pohjonen in works by Grieg, Rautavaara, Carter and Elgar.
When: 8 p.m. Sat.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 11th St. and Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $24-$125, 612-371-5656.