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Which side are you on?

In the second half of the 19th century, composers, conductors and soloists were divided by their allegiance to either Johannes Brahms or Richard Wagner. Those composers had radically different ideas about the direction romanticism should go — one not straying from the path Beethoven had set, the other blowing things up with wild ideas like weeklong operatic sagas. Both wrote a lot of beautiful music but structurally and harmonically quite disparate.

So which side are you on, Thomas Søndergård? The Minnesota Orchestra's new music director is approaching the end of his first season at the helm, and we're still trying to get a sense of the direction he wishes to take this orchestra. But the weekend's concerts might offer a clue.

For there in the center of the program was Brahms, represented by his work for choir and orchestra, "Schicksalslied." Right behind it was the First Symphony of Brahms' mentor, Robert Schumann, nicknamed "Spring." And the concert's solo showcase belonged to the orchestra's concertmaster, Erin Keefe, performing the First Violin Concerto of Max Bruch, a 19th-century, heart-on-his-sleeve German romantic very much of the Schumann/Brahms school.

Until now, the most we've learned about Søndergård is that he really likes big, bold European works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that he and the orchestra play them very well. Folks such as Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and early Igor Stravinsky. But this weekend he went further back in time, landing smack dab in the middle of the romantic revolution.

Does the style suit him well? Friday evening's concert at Orchestra Hall left me undecided on that point. Keefe played the Bruch beautifully, emphasizing smoothness, lyricism and emotional impact like a good romantic should. But the orchestra under Søndergård's direction didn't match her in those pursuits, too often embracing a histrionic approach left over from the evening's opening work, the U.S. premiere of England-based composer Eleanor Alberga's "Rise Up, O Sun!"

A softer touch emerged on Brahms' "Schicksalslied," Søndergård setting down his baton and sculpting the sound of the Minnesota Chorale with care. The choir and the woodwinds brought some welcome gentleness to the work, although fortissimos occasionally incongruously erupted.

Now about Schumann: Søndergård has been quoted as calling him among his favorite composers, but I came away from Friday's concert uncertain about his approach. One could call Schumann something of a bridge between Beethoven and Brahms, and therein lies a crossroads as to whether his music should feature crisp, precise attacks à la Beethoven or wrap you in the kind of warm blanket of schmaltzy sound favored by Brahms.

Søndergård seems to favor the latter, judging from Friday's Schumann. Yes, there's something of the sumptuous feel of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony to it, but Søndergård and the orchestra emphasized explosiveness with aggressive attacks, firm and forceful. Yet I found it most captivating when the winds delivered blissful interludes.

While this was known as a great Beethoven orchestra under Osmo Vänskä's leadership earlier this century, it may take a little time to transition into a top-notch Schumann ensemble. And as for the Brahms vs. Wagner divide? That remains an open question.

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