It's great to be back … and it feels odd to be back.
You've probably experienced that sensation recently when haunting a former stomping ground and wondering why you weren't overwhelmed with the bliss of liberation. Out of practice? Sure. Traumatized and not quite recovered? Certainly. Still cautious and uncertain if we're out of the woods?
Well, the Minnesota Orchestra seems to understand that last one well. Friday night, live audiences returned to the interior of Orchestra Hall for the first time since March 2020, and everyone was masked, socially distanced, and coming and going in staggered groupings. Patrons were so spread out, there were only about four people for every 20 seats, none in the first several rows. And, even at such limited capacity, you could still get a ticket Friday afternoon.
But the hundreds present sounded like considerably more when they expressed their enthusiasm for the orchestra, music director Osmo Vänskä and pianist Orion Weiss, who soloed on Frederic Chopin's demanding Second Piano Concerto. That was the romantic main course between considerably frothier 18th-century pieces from two Josephs, Bologne and Haydn.
And, seeing as what a tough last 15 months it's been, maybe we could all use a little classical comfort food. This program — which was repeated Saturday afternoon and can be streamed at minnesotaorchestra.org — felt like that. Nothing overly challenging — save what Chopin asks of a pianist — everything offering a warm familiarity.
Even a composer not part of the customary canon can sound familiar. Such is the case with Joseph Bologne, aka the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who conformed to many of the same classical-era conventions as Mozart and Haydn. His breezy Second Symphony got things off to a sprightly start Friday. (And you may hear its tunes again: Some of the symphony resurfaces in Bologne's opera "The Anonymous Lover," which will be the first fully staged production of Minnesota Opera's 2021-22 season.)
The concert's most memorable music came on the lovely central slow movement of Chopin's Second Piano Concerto. Weiss made it a fascinating glimpse into the heart of the lovesick young composer, a beautiful balance of sweetness and melancholy: warm, lyrical and expressive.
Yet Weiss impressed on the faster movements around it, as well. The first was passionately full-voiced while the finale's dance forms gave rise to a virtual ballet on the keys. Weiss brought drive and delicacy to its fast flurries of notes. While the orchestra's fortissimos occasionally overpowered some fine piano work, it was a satisfying performance.
For the first half of Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony (No. 94), I wondered what was missing. But then it arrived in the third and fourth movements: urgency.
All of a sudden, a work that had seemed unexceptional took on an exciting edge. Staccatos were crisp, phrases were full of energy. It started on a minuet that felt more like a polka party, the strings producing a sound and spirit reminiscent of some of their excellent performances of early Beethoven symphonies. And the playful finale seemed like the scintillating soundtrack for a chase scene. Escapist? To some degree, but confronting unprocessed grief could wait for another night. This was an evening for joyfully renewing a friendship with the experience of a live orchestral concert.
With: Conductor Osmo Vänskä and pianist Orion Weiss.
What: Music by Joseph Bologne, Frederic Chopin and Joseph Haydn.
Where: Viewable for free at minnesotaorchestra.org.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org