The Minnesota Orchestra with pianist Inon Barnatan Review – An exciting afternoon at Symphony Center, Chicago

The Minnesota Orchestra; photo by Cuba Anderson
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On Sunday, January 28, 2018, one of America’s top symphonic ensembles, the Minnesota Orchestra, under the baton of their Music Director, Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, with much lauded Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, performed a concert of Tchaikovsky and Mozart bookended between works of Sibelius at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago, as part of the 87th season Symphony Center Presents Orchestra series. The program included:

Jean Sibelius, En Saga, Opus 9, 1892; 1902

En Saga is one of Sibelius’s most popular and most frequently recorded orchestral works. The composer himself noted, “En Saga is psychologically one of my most profound works. I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it. It is an expression of a state of mind. When I was writing En Saga I went through many things that were upsetting to me. In no other work have I revealed myself as completely as in En Saga.”

Vänskä is known to be an accomplished expert in the music of this compatriot of Finland, and the presentation of this beautiful work was fresh, sensitive, and filled with contrast and a fine natural balance. Sibelius’ first tone poem contains folksy melodies that range from soft breathy string-filled moments to florid dramatic passages accented by powerful brass. The numerous themes are lyrical and melodically pleasing, set off by piccolo and flute, the rhythms hypnotizing.

Conductor Osmo Vänskä; photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, 1874

This work has always been popular with audiences, if less so with critics and musicologists, and in 1958 Van Cliburn’s recording became the first piece of classical music to sell one million copies.

The unmistakable opening-  thunderous octave chords- of this impressive concerto was followed by all 3 movements performed with deeply expressive technical virtuosity by Barnatan and the Minnesota Orchestra. The sweeping and expansively romantic opening movement was appropriately showy with a gentle transition to the main Allegro. The soulful and lyrically beautiful 2nd movement contained a fine interplay between the solo pianist and the Orchestra, with the rapid middle portion given with a superb delicacy; the stunning finale was an exciting thriller.

This was a strong performance that delivered a lot of sound. Barnatan handled the rapid tempi with flourish and thoughtfulness, never overplaying, never seeming to rush. With thorough technical mastery, his hands sped over the keys shaping the phrases with deft assurance. Osmo Vänskä is an interesting conductor to watch, dynamic, comfortable and in full control of his Orchestra.

Pianist Inon Barnatan; photo by Marco Borggreve

Ludwig Beethoven Symphony No. 7, Op. 92, 1811-1812

Richard Wagner described this symphony as dissolving “all tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart” into “the blissful insolence of joy, which snatches us away with bacchanalian might.”

The first movement here begins with a long, slow introduction that ranges from ceremonial chords to complex counterpoint. The piece develops with an ingenious use of harmony and rhythm that succeed in unifying the movements and “binding” them together, alternating tempo, rhythm and melody reminiscent of a suite of dances.

The Minnesota Orchestra masterfully presented the triumphant marshal sound of the first movement and segued fluidly into the solemn, sober second with it’s virtual obsessive repetition of the opening rhythm unfolding in colorful textural waves, rising, building, fulfilling themselves, and building once again. The third movement Presto takes on a double formatted triple-time dance with a rhythmically intense resolution. The momentum grows into the Allegro con brio, bringing the finale to a satisfying climax filled with sheer rhythmic intensity.

– In encore, Jean Sibelius Tanz-Intermezzo, Op. 45, No. 2, 1904

This very welcome encore, given after considerable applause, was a brief, charming, light and elegant work, that “shows Sibelius at his most entertaining.”

For information and tickets to all the fine programs of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to cso website