What's going to be the specialty of the house?
For the past two decades, the Minnesota Orchestra focused largely on Beethoven before moving on to become one of the world's expert ensembles with the music of Finnish romantic-cum-modernist Jean Sibelius.
So what direction will concert programming go under the orchestra's freshly minted music director, Thomas Søndergård? Well, if the first fortnight of his tenure is any indication, he seems to favor big European orchestral showpieces written between 1880 and 1920, works that call for a massive amount of musicians and an expansive variety of moods and volume levels.
What does the Danish conductor do for an encore after spending opening weekend summoning up the richly evocative chronicle of a mountaineering expedition that is Richard Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony"? How about something requiring twice as many musicians and almost as much of your time, but perhaps taking you on an even more involving musical journey?
While I enjoyed the Strauss of Søndergård's opening concert, Thursday's midday concert was even more rewarding, thanks chiefly to a mesmerizing interpretation of the almost-complete ballet music from Maurice Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe." But that was merely the climax of a program that featured four outstanding examples of excellent orchestration, each ideal for sweeping you into an alternate universe of the composer's creation.
If Søndergård drew this programming up with the idea of showing off both the masterful musicianship of individuals within the orchestra and what a well-oiled sum of its parts it is, this weekend's concerts serve the purpose beautifully.
And there's plenty of beauty in all four of the program's pieces. While the concert's lone work from the 21st century, Lera Auerbach's "Icarus," begins in aggressively anxious urgency, its meditative moments gibed well with the piece that followed it, the transcendent dreamscape of Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." With Søndergård's graceful direction setting the tone, it proved a sublime forum for the orchestra's woodwinds and French horns.
Søndergård's growing international reputation has a lot to do with his way with opera, and his first two programs have underlined his musical storytelling skills. Not only is he quite theatrical in his direction, but he seems invariably intent upon bringing forth the drama within the music. Such was the case with Samuel Barber's "Medea's Dance of Vengeance," which evolved from an unsettling calm to a volcanic violence.
But the best reason to catch these concerts is Ravel's captivating masterpiece, "Daphnis and Chloe." Søndergård's maiden voyage with the Minnesota Chorale went splendidly, the 120 singers seeming more like an extension of the orchestra than their own accompanying ensemble as they swept listeners up in Ravel's deeply textured wordless harmonies.
Supertitles projected against the great tumbling cubes above the stage provided titles for various sections of the ballet, but they seemed unnecessary interruptions to a piece that could easily coax you into an out-of-body experience. Here's hoping that more such musical odysseys are in store under Søndergård's leadership.
With: Conductor Thomas Søndergård and the Minnesota Chorale
What: Works by Lera Auerbach, Claude Debussy, Samuel Barber and Maurice Ravel
When: 8 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. Sat.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: Friday $31-$106, Saturday choose-your-price (18 and under free, $15 student rush, $20 for those under 40), available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org
Note: Friday's concert will be broadcast on TPT-2 and livestreamed at minnesotaorchestra.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.