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REVIEW: Karina Canellakis Leads MN Orchestra to Exciting Close (Orchestra Hall)

The Minnesota Orchestra closed its summer programming this weekend with a thrilling program led by guest conductor Karina Canellakis. The evening included a movement from a symphony by William Grant Still, two excerpts from a Mozart piano concerto, and a Tchaikovsky symphony.

For some season planners, the archetypical summer classical music concert should not overly stress listeners’ ears or patience. In practice, this means programming means works that are not too long, not too “adventurous”, and light on the doom and gloom, ideally with a bit of familiarity. That’s a fairly apt description of the three works that appeared on the weekend’s program at Orchestra Hall.

The MN Orchestra has teased audiences before with excerpts from African American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978)’s symphonic oeuvre. This program continued this flirtation, presenting a single movement from Still’s Symphony No. 1 (1930). As before, the thrilling and engaging music makes one yearn for less dating and more commitment to programming a full work by the composer, especially since this particular symphony runs just 25 minutes in its entirety. Here, COVID-19 intruded: orchestra planners across the country have been limiting indoor concerts to 90 minutes. In a normal season, Still’s work might have easily fit in its entirety.

The desire to fit in a symphonic movement by Still explains another curious piece of mutilation: cutting the first movement from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (1785). Here, the calculus is more visible: the swapped movements are roughly equal in length. As the full concerto runs about 29 minutes, the Minnesota Orchestra could have fit either the piano concerto or the Still symphony in with the Tchaikovsky, and elected for the middle road.

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker’s sterling performance at the piano certainly made a strong argument for the middle-of-the-road option. Still, it remains to be seen if the ensemble will make a more substantive commitment to programming full works by African American composers, possibly including ones who are not long-deceased.

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker MC’d and took the keyboard for two movements from Mozart’s famous Piano Concerto No. 21. Photo by Tara McMullen.

Speaking of that concerto: the Mozart was elegantly delivered, with flowing, dynamic conducting by Canellakis, and an exciting repartee between Jon Kimura Parker and the orchestra. The third movement in particular built up a stirring energy, aided by the pianist’s spritely cadenza, until the audience erupted in applause.

Karina Canellakis, the Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, led the Minnesota Orchestra during the weekend concerts. Photo by Eduardus Lee.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 (1878) was the showcase piece for the orchestra soloists and the conductor. If Canellakis used a more moderate conducting style in the first two pieces, with the Tchaikovsky she was in full dynamic force, with an energetic flair that recalled that of Seiji Ozawa. In the famous Pizzicato third movement, the delicate balance was like watching a master weaver at work. In the steamroller finale, it was like watching the sorcerer’s apprentice commanding the waves. From start to finish, the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance of this piece was a stirring joy.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2021-2022 season at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis opens September 23 with a concert featuring violinist Joshua Bell. Osmo Vänskä returns to the podium for his final season with the ensemble.

Basil Considine