See more of the story

Melodies were coming easily to Johannes Brahms when he wrote his Violin Concerto, so he planted a plethora of them throughout the piece. They pop up all over the orchestra, the soloist sometimes taking them up, other times responding with a completely different one.

While melodiousness can present a sense of ease, Brahms tasked his soloist with a devilishly difficult concerto. But you may never encounter a violinist who makes it as captivating as Christian Tetzlaff. At Thursday's midday concert with conductor David Afkham and the Minnesota Orchestra, the German violinist reinforced the perception he's left on past visits: That, when it comes to violin repertoire, Tetzlaff is one of the master interpreters of our age.

Batting leadoff on a concert that also featured 20th-century works by Henri Dutilleux and Béla Bartók, Tetzlaff presented a deeply absorbing take on the Brahms concerto, one that employed the full range of dynamics available to both violin and orchestra. Even before he played a note, it seemed this would be a special performance, for some of those memorable melodies show up in the extended intro, and the orchestra painted a lovely landscape for Tetzlaff to traverse.

And what a beautiful balance between orchestra and soloist, Afkham acutely attuned to the soloist's desire to emphasize soft clarity on the pianissimo passages, the better to set up the ensuing explosions. The first movement climaxed with a cadenza full of contrast, low and light, sweet and brusque, Tetzlaff gliding gracefully between the extremes.

Among violin concertos, the Brahms is one of the great orchestral showpieces, and the Adagio movement abounded with excellent ensemble work and scintillating solos, particularly from oboist Nathan Hughes and Jaclyn Rainey's French horn. But most memorable were Tetzlaff's breathtakingly gentle high notes, delivering us to a place of placid beauty.

Again emphasizing whisper-to-a-shout transitions, they tore right into the stomping folk dance of a finale, Tetzlaff bursting forth with rough and rustic double stops, and unleashing such imaginative interpretive ideas as transforming the main theme into something like a polka. A well-earned standing ovation inspired the soloist to bring the audience back to calmer environs with the Largo from J.S. Bach's Third Violin Sonata.

It's customary for major orchestras to serve the more modern material as appetizers before rewarding those of more conservative tastes for their patience with a main course like the Brahms. But this program flipped the script, opening the concert's second half with Dutilleux's very interesting "Métaboles." Composed in 1965, it sounds as if it could have served as inspiration for the French spectralists (and maybe the American minimalists) who emerged the following decade. Afkham and the orchestra gave it an arresting reading, making it seem a fascinating puzzle constructed from short bursts of melody and percussion.

While the orchestra did some fine things with a suite from Béla Bartók's "The Miraculous Mandarin" — particularly during the emotive solos of clarinetist Gregory T. Williams — the piece is something of a tough nut to crack. It feels so programmatic, such a series of distinct character sketches and scenes, that, without a narrative attached, it can seem perplexingly disjointed. And quite the anticlimax after such a magnificent take on the Brahms concerto.

Minnesota Orchestra

With: Conductor David Afkham and violinist Christian Tetzlaff

What: Works by Johannes Brahms, Henri Dutilleux and Béla Bartók

When: 8 p.m. Fri., 7 p.m. Sat.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

Tickets: $20-$106, available at 612-371-5656 or

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at