This is your life, Osmo Vänskä.
Just as that old TV show surprised some celebrity with a reunion-filled journey down Memory Lane, so is Vänskä's final season as Minnesota Orchestra music director something of a nostalgia fest.
Take Thursday evening's season-opening concert at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. Back in 2000, Vänskä's first performance with the orchestra was a guest appearance at which the featured soloist was star violinist Joshua Bell. Conductor and soloist are back together again this week.
And it was Vänskä who first suggested to his fellow Finn, composer Kalevi Aho, that he write a large-scale 20-minute curtain raiser for the Minnesota Orchestra. The result was "Minea" (the title a shortened version of Minneapolis), which the orchestra premiered in 2009 and is reviving at these concerts along with another example of the conductor's commitment to new music, Jessie Montgomery's "Banner."
But what put Vänskä and the orchestra firmly on the international classical music map were the symphonies of Beethoven. And the program concludes with the most famous of the bunch, the Fifth Symphony.
At first blush, the main attraction on opening night of Vänskä's final season in Minneapolis was Joshua Bell, who remains a one-man box office bonanza. And, sure enough, Orchestra Hall was almost full to capacity for the first time since COVID began. But, despite displaying his usual expert technique and swoon-ready expressiveness, Bell soloed on a so-so piece, Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy."
Yet Beethoven's Fifth was tremendously exhilarating. Just as the orchestra's recordings of the Beethoven symphonies were full of unexpected elements, so was Thursday's interpretation. Dynamic contrast was wide and varied, urgency abounding.
And at the center of it all was Vänskä, as entertaining as ever. Bouncing, thrusting, parrying, his shifts of posture communicating the mood of the music, his trembling hands conveyed his intensity and asked the musicians to match it with their own. Just as Beethoven's music charted a journey from tragedy to triumph, so did this performance ascend toward exultation.
That's not to say that Bell was totally eclipsed by Beethoven. He's as fine a player as ever, a violinist with a warm, pure tone and a marvelous mastery of the emotional eloquence required for quintessential romantics like Bruch. While Bruch's First Violin Concerto may be the ultimate in romanticism for violin, the "Scottish Fantasy" is too schmaltzy by half, and its Germanic imitation of Celtic folk styles lacks the sparkling spirit of genuine Scottish music.
Yet it's a difficult part for the soloist, and Bell acquitted himself admirably, smoothly negotiating the double and quadruple stops that imitate drones and fleetly flying up and down his instrument's register with astounding clarity. He found a fount of lyricism within the work and sang out its lines like a tear-jerking tenor.
The simplicity of the Bruch stood in contrast to the thick textures of Aho's "Minea," a work as tumultuous as a hurricane, an eye of anxious calm passing over before the storm of percussion-packed intensity returned. And Montgomery's "Banner" was a marvelous multicultural mix of musical styles, woven together in fascinating fashion.
But it was the excitement of the Beethoven that sent me into the autumn night deeply satisfied, warm with anticipation that Vänskä and the orchestra will be returning to his music repeatedly before the winter winds fly.
With: Conductor Osmo Vänskä and violinist Joshua Bell
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $135-$55, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.