Thursday, February 26, 2009

Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra, but Joshua is the Bell of Barbican

Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times
Joshua Bell performed with the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Osmo Vänskä at the Barbican Centre Tuesday night, starting their European tour on solid ground. London is the first stop on a European tour for the Minnesota Orchestra, continueing on to Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Luxembourg and Vienna. Osmo Vänskä lead the orchestra through a thrilling programme of Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, Barber’s Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Eroica. With a sold out crowd, it was a stunning way to start the trip.

Both conductor and violist were praised for their performances, but it was Bell who won the night.Neil Fisher of The Times (London) wrote:

"America’s favourite preppy violinist was on ravishing form, offering sweetly sustained lyricism that never threatened to teeter into schmaltz. The reward for the audience’s ovations was a fiendish encore (Henri Vieuxtemps’ Souvenir d’Amérique) that flashed virtuosity in all the right ways."

Edward Seckerson of The Independent was equally as admiring of Bell.

"Joshua Bell played the Violin Concerto with rapt, confidential, beauty, slipping into the salon-like texture of the opening so unassumingly that he might easily have been just another member of the Minnesota string section. It was that awareness of his surroundings, that chamber music intuition, that made this performance so revealing. The virtuosic finale still sounds like an afterthought to me – a last ditch attempt to get some fireworks into the piece. Bell took those in his stride like a mischievous Puck gone bad."

Even with the star light shinning on Bell, Vänskä held his own with an exceptional performance. Martin Kettle of The Guardian wrote:

"As one would expect from the imaginative Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota programme was exceptionally well constructed. John Adams's Slonimsky's Earbox, written for the Hallé in 1995 and a turning point in the composer's move away from minimalism, allowed the orchestra to display some pulsatingly loud virtuosity, though its most haunting passages are its rare moments of restraint.

"In the second half, Vänskä offered a fast, well-prepared account of Beethoven's Eroica symphony. The opening movement, tense and exciting, fared best, along with the finale. But in the funeral march, weight and tone were sacrificed for bite and momentum, and the interpretation slightly lost its way."

Neil Fisher's also spoke highly of Vänskä, "the Finnish conductor and his brilliant American orchestra punched, teased, charmed and thrilled their way through Beethoven’s Eroica symphony." With a grueling tour ahead of them, it's nice to see it start on such a high note.

Performances by the orchestra, most of them recordings, are being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 every night (or heard on the BBC's iPlayer), with each program hosted by Brian Newhouse of Minnesota Public Radio. Tuesday’s concert by the Minnesota Orchestra at London’s Barbican Centre will be re-broadcast Friday (Feb. 27) at 8 p.m. on MPR’s classical station, 99.5 FM.

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