On Thursday morning, Joshua and I sneaked out of our respective offices for an early and long lunch. We met at Orchestra Hall to hear the 11:00 a.m. concert by the Minnesota Orchestra.
Music Director Osmo Vanska was conductor, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein was soloist. On the program was music by Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss.
Milhaud’s “La Creation Du Monde” opened the concert. When he wrote this ballet score in 1922 and 1923, Milhaud thought he was writing jazz—but an American listener would never categorize “La Creation Du Monde” as jazz. It is 1920s French music through and through, insouciant and Neo-Classical, with a few jazz-like harmonies and rhythms weakly incorporated into the composition.
Before composing “La Creation Du Monde”, Milhaud had written an earlier ballet score, “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit”, inspired by the popular music of Brazil. “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit”, written in 1919, is much more successful in evoking the sounds of Brazil than is “La Creation Du Monde” in evoking the sounds of American jazz.
I have never believed “La Creation Du Monde” to be a successful composition. The basic materials are thin, the development cursory, the themes pedestrian. Passing incident is lacking. “La Creation Du Monde” does not work on any level and, to my ears, it lacks even an attractive surface sheen.
As a dance work for the theater, “La Creation Du Monde” disappeared instantly from the stage. To the extent it lives on, it lives on only in the concert hall—and performances in the U.S. are few and far between, probably because Americans do not perceive the piece as very jazz-like.
The Minnesota Orchestra performance was basically a throwaway performance. The performance had obviously been fully rehearsed, but there was nothing Vanska or the musicians could do to bring the piece to life.
The Piano Concerto of Ravel followed the Milhaud.
The orchestra played with tremendous accuracy and some brilliance in the Ravel, although the rhythms were a little stiff, especially in the outer movements. Blame for the rhythmic stiffness must be laid at the feet of Vanska—rhythmic stiffness is one of his most conspicuous and ever-present shortcomings.
The Minnesota Orchestra is not a “French” orchestra, and Vanska is not a “French” conductor, so there was very little French quality to the performance. In fact, the performance was as much Russian as French, always in search of color, boldness and the big gesture instead of fragrance, understatement and “chic”. That Ravel based much of the first movement of his Piano Concerto on Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka”—his was an act of grand larceny—only further emphasized the Russian quality of Thursday morning’s performance.
Dinnerstein’s playing was charming in the slow movement, and she held my full attention there. Such is an accomplishment, because the slow movement in the Ravel is notoriously difficult to bring off. Ravel worked on his Piano Concerto for three years (1929 to 1931) and it was the slow movement that caused him grief. Ravel wanted the slow movement to be effortless—and, after much toil, the composer succeeded in making it so, but often at the expense of ennui during performance.
In the outer movements, Dinnerstein had the notes down, but she did not do much with the movements compared to the leading exponents of this concerto past and present. In the first and third movements, Dinnerstein was proficient, not arresting.
I have no clue whether Dinnerstein is an important artist. I had never previously heard her, and the Ravel Piano Concerto—unless one is a Michelangeli—reveals very little about the pianist.
After intermission, the orchestra played Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben”.
The performance was very, very fine; the level of ensemble was very, very high. The Minnesota Orchestra may now be America’s fourth-finest ensemble, trailing—in order—only Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The Minnesota Orchestra of today is an exceptionally-fine orchestra. When playing for Vanska, the musicians play with tremendous focus, energy and commitment. There is a vibrancy in the music-making that is not present in Boston or New York.
The orchestra has not, however, acquired greatness. Its sound remains generic as does its music-making.
The orchestra’s strings lack color and weight as well as a uniform quality of sound throughout the dynamic range. When playing at high volume, the strings lack transparency and become strident and glassy. When playing softly, the strings produce a wispy sound.
The principal winds are not a distinguished group, lacking character and personality. They do not compare favorably to the principal winds in Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The orchestra’s brass section is very strong—but it is often allowed to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra.
The generic nature of the orchestra’s music-making was exemplified by the “Heldenleben” performance: phrasing was generalized; musical episodes were broad, not pointed and precise. Of subtle characterization there was none. It was a bold but ultimately bland “Heldenleben” that Vanska and the musicians offered. The piece was played purely as showpiece for orchestra.
And yet the performance was enormously enjoyable. Any music-lover would be happy to hear such a performance—but would be aware, the entire performance, that Fritz Reiner and Rudolf Kempe found much more content in the score than Vanska uncovered.
There was a large and enthusiastic crowd in the hall Thursday morning. I would estimate that eighty per cent of the seats were filled (Orchestra Hall accommodates 2500 persons). Free coffee and donuts were available for concertgoers. There was almost a festive air about the occasion.
It was on Wednesday night that we first discussed attending Thursday morning’s concert. When Josh mentioned this fact Wednesday night on his Twitter account, the Minnesota Orchestra replied to him—twice.
We thought that was a nice touch.
My mother came downtown for Thursday morning’s concert, too. After the concert, Josh and I took her out for a quick lunch. We went to a modest place and ordered club sandwiches.