Jumping for joy
Spontaneity and passion made the Minnesota Orchestra's two Proms under Osmo Vänskä a refreshing listen
There’s a scene in the 1980s Jack Nicholson film, The Witches of Eastwick, in which the mystic music teacher, Susan Sarandon, pirouettes joyously around the classroom while her kids – usually a talentless bunch – spontaneously play Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik from memory, accelerating to fever pitch under her spell.
I only mention because it came momentarily to mind this week while watching Osmo Vänskä conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – not the players, though you’ll find similarly surprising levels of spontaneity in the Minnesota Orchestra’s playing – but more that moment of magic when, having cast a spell, the conductor takes a step back – literally – and relishes the results. Vänskä brings real passion to the podium.
At times he jumps so vigorously his feet leave the platform; others he crouches almost to his knees in order to achieve the softest of pianissimos; and where the music dances, so too does Vänskä, arms outstretched and limbs ungainly, like a waltzing marionette carried by the sound.
The results in each of the Minnesota Orchestra’s two concerts made for thoroughly engaging listening. On the Friday they brought their full-bodied sound to an early programmatic essay by Barber – Music for a Scene from Shelley – and provided sterling support for Alisa Weilerstein through the caustic monologues of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, followed by Bruckner's Fourth Symphony.
On the Saturday, they brought their unanimity of sentiments and sensitivity to violinist Gil Shaham’s free-flowing delivery of the Berg Concerto, but it was perhaps Vänskä ’s ability to inject fire and precision into Beethoven’s warhorse, the Ninth Symphony, that was most impressive – it all sounded so incredibly fresh.
If I had any gripes about the Beethoven, they were about its odd mix of soloists – the soprano Helena Juntunen’s operatic delivery almost derailing the melody at one point in the Finale – and the BBC Symphony Chorus simply lacked the added power when it was required. One wonders how much time they had had to rehearse.
Nevertheless, Vänskä showed why the Minnesota Orchestra’s has become a sound to be reckoned with since he took up the baton there in 2003. Perhaps my only other regret was that he could not have arrived 24 hours earlier to save us from the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Sibelius's Second Symphony under David Robertson – routine by most standards, pedestrian by Vänskä’s.
Prom 56: Barber: Music for a Scene from Shelley; Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1; Bruckner: Fourth Symphony
Alisa Weilerstein (cello); Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Prom 57: Berg: Violin Concerto; Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Gil Shaham (violin); Helena Juntunen (soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), Eric Cutler (tenor), Neal Davies (bass); BBC Symphony Chorus; Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.