Intensity abounds in opening Sommerfest concert
REVIEW | 07.09.10 | By Rob Hubbard | St. Paul Pioneer Press
Just as the Viennese open the year with a bubbly concert full of waltzes and polkas from the Strauss family, so does the Minnesota Orchestra annually launch its summer celebration of Vienna’s music with a similar program. Usually, the more serious fare is saved until later in the festival, but — since the economy has squeezed Sommerfest down to 11 concerts — perhaps music director Andrew Litton decided to cut to the chase. Hence, the emotional storm clouds of Beethoven rolled in early at Friday’s opening concert.
And what welcome thunder it was. Jon Kimura Parker was the featured soloist for a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto that rippled with intensity and was filled with interesting interpretive ideas. Sure, the waltzes and polkas were a pleasant diversion, but Parker’s performance served up some substance amid the sweetness.
The highlight was an engrossing opening movement that set the orchestra’s muscular might against Parker’s staccato strikes. In a performance full of well-shaped dynamic contrast, the pianist summed up the philosophy with a first-movement cadenza in which complex overlapping themes gradually faded to a whisper, giving way to a wistful music-box lullaby abruptly interrupted by an explosion of anxious chords. Although the orchestra didn’t bring its customary crispness to the concerto’s slow movement, the finale had the ideal mix of menace and abandon.
As for the frothy collection of dance works from the ballrooms of late 19th-century Vienna, Litton seemed admirably intent upon bringing contrast to the fore, sliding smoothly between pianissimos and surges of sound. The Overture to Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that opened the concert bounded buoyantly before the members of the orchestra sang and played simultaneously on Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Peasants’ Polka.”
The limited amount of rehearsal time given to Sommerfest concerts — the result of performing 10 different programs in 16 days — only intermittently showed through on Friday, most notably in some less-than-tight tempo changes. But the concert was a nice combination of light and darkness, a fine prelude to tonight’s far more serious program of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.