Vanskä leads New World Symphony in performances of bracing power and flexibility

By David Fleshler

The conductor Osmo Vänskä, a product of Finland’s white-hot classical music scene, took the podium in South Beach Friday to lead the New World Symphony in a concert of bracing clarity and power.

Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003, has revitalized that venerable ensemble with European tours, its first appearance at the BBC Proms and an acclaimed recording of the Beethoven symphonies.  In a concert at the Lincoln Theatre that will be repeated tonight, he drew an outstanding performance from the orchestra in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, as well as admirable accounts of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale and Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major.

In the Brahms, Vänskä favored brisk tempos and transparent textures, allowing every note the composer wrote to be heard. But although this is Brahms’ most austere symphony, there was nothing cold or brittle about the performance. Strings played with richness and precision, and the winds in particular played with gorgeous tones throughout the symphony. The great climax that closes the first movement, as the opening theme returns in strings and brass, came with searing intensity, as Vänskä finally allowed the orchestra to play with all its power.

Vänskä’s conducting style is unique. For lyric passages, such as melodies in the violins or cellos in the first movement, he puts down his baton and uses sweeping movements of his hands only, as if to give the players the room to breathe and play from the heart.  He also laid down the baton for the entire slow movement and did the same during the flute solo toward the end of the last movement.  But then as the grim chaconne theme was about to return, he resumed control,  up came the baton, the battle was on.

The German cellist Alban Gerhardt joined the orchestra for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major, a piece that rarely fights its way past the more common works of Dvorak, Elgar and Tchaikovsky to be heard in the concert hall. Gerhardt is clearly a virtuoso of the first rank, handling the concerto’s runs and octaves without trouble and without the extraneous bow noise or other signs from the performer that he’s working really hard.

Although his performance of the Adagio was detached to the point of coldness, he gave an exuberant account of the outer fast movements. This was not a square, classically proportioned Haydn performance. Gerhardt took some liberties in style and tempo, but it gave the outer movements more life than would a painfully correct interpretation.

Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale is a product of the composer’s early years in Paris, which also produced The Firebird, The Rite of Spring and Petrouchka. Despite its dissonances, this is one of those richly colored showpieces that allow an orchestra to put itself on display. The New World musicians responded with virtuoso performances, particularly the flute and trumpet. Vänskä gave the musicians room to work here, treating the solo flute, oboe and other instruments as if they were singers on stage, often letting his hands drop and allowing them to shape the phrases on their own, giving the work a sense of spontaneity and drama.

The New World Symphony repeats the program 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre. Call 800-597-3331 or go to

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Sat Dec 5, 2009
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