Music Review: Masterful Minnesota Orchestra stirs feelings of awe

By Gayle Williams, Sarasota Herald Tribune

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein was guest soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra in Sarasota.

Sometimes the simple things say the most. The encore selection at the end of the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance was the famous little trifle, Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius. This was a sensible choice for a concert concluding in a sweeping performance of the same Finnish composer’s Symphony №5 in E-flat major, op. 82. Yet, in those scant moments of the encore, we were given a summary of all those factors that make the Minnesota Orchestra a masterful ensemble with seemingly infinite control of every detail.

The music director and conductor Osmo Vänskä, a Finn himself, led the orchestra in an impressive program beginning with the entirely new sound experience of composer Kalevi Aho’s Gejia-Chinese Images for Orchestra. Gongs, bells and drums marked the first image of a raucous village festival, or so one might imagine as the Gejia are a hill tribe in the subtropical, mountainous region of Guizhou in southwest China. The music was marked by distinctive melodic lines and colors that evoked intimate garden scenes, a swaying caravan, and soaring over peaks and valleys. The ensemble’s refined dynamic control and contrasts, spectacular percussion section, and solo turns by many with special mention to piccolo and principal viola, brought this unusual music to a high polish.

Cello soloist Alisa Weilerstein, always a thrill to hear, fronted an equally striking performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104. Chock full of those signature melodies with that Bohemian flair, both soloist and orchestra squeezed all the emotional juice from the score for us to enjoy. Known for soulful performances, Weilerstein is a discerning artist with a commanding voice. Vänskä, too, added a distinct flavor of his own, urging tempos forward and adding unusual spots of drama.

Each section of the orchestra flexed its muscle and displayed fine artistry. The strings, lush with infinite variety of sound, and woodwinds, bold and exact, stood on par with a muscled brass section with admirable sheen.

More than most music, the symphonies of Sibelius are impossible to capture in words. This is all the more true when the performance is of the highest standards as we heard with the Minnesota musicians. Maybe it takes a Finn to channel the spirit of this music for I stand in awe of what Vänskä brought to my ears. Every detail mattered and, amazingly, could be heard. The musical texture is incredibly complex, yet it was vivid and palpable. Shafts of light, fleeting passages emerged from the shadows and disappeared again. Sure, there’s a structure, but the listener is better off wrapping herself up in the entire blanket of music and going along on the adventure.

The credit goes to an exceptional orchestra and its leader. Again, as we heard in the encore Valse Triste, the little details delivered with precision, artistic integrity, and passion make all the difference in the world. Thanks Minnesota!

Originally published at

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