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Minnesota Orchestra #3: The Barbican

Rehearsal at the Barbican

The Minnesota Orchestra has been bused across London town from the tony Kensington neighborhood edging Kensington Gardens and the Palace (yes, that one) through Westminster and past the Cathedral (yes, that one) to the Barbican. For tomorrow’s concert in Berlin, the orchestra won’t have time to rehearse a note. Tonight, there is time for an hour’s drilling.

The Barbican was built in 1982 and, although it is beautifully preserved, the design elements telegraph its age: poured concrete walls, lower-case Helvetica signage everywhere, and jewel-toned light fixtures. It looks like many a Catholic college. Its levels are ominously labeled “minus 1” and “minus 2,” but the stage is actually quite attractive, circled in warm wood tones with a pipe organ built ingeniously and almost invisibly into the stage walls.

The orchestra, mostly in street clothes, is already on stage. Music Director Osmo Vänskä wears t-shirts to rehearsal; today’s is black with a staff and “Low Note” on the back in white lettering. He takes the podium, briskly says, “Good afternoon, welcome to London, let’s start,” and with the dropping of the baton for the down beat, the stage erupts in music.

A modern John Adams piece got a bit of rehearsal and then on to the Samuel Barber violin concerto, the showpiece Joshua Bell will be playing tonight. Josh walks onto the stage in narrow black slacks and a white pleated shirt, all flowy and poetic-looking. The musicians signal approval by shuffling their feet, the orchestral version of applause. Now, things start and stop, Bell and Vänskä discuss, tinker, try, debate. Assistant conductor Sarah Hicks has been listening from the audience. She walks down to the stage and whispers to Vänskä. He listens and then good-naturedly yells to the back of the stage, “The horns are too loud!” A microphone stand near Bell suddenly topples off the stage and he catches it with his foot.

The Minnesota Orchestra on BBC All Week

The BBC is recording tonight and will air this performance on Wednesday evening. In fact, BBC radio is broadcasting nearly an entire week of Minnesota Orchestra concerts Monday through Thursday. Minnesotans can hear the broadcasts streaming from the BBC website. Monday and Tuesday are parts one and two of the documentary on the orchestra’s centennial that MPR produced in 2003. Wednesday, February 25, tonight’s concert will be broadcast, followed by Brian Newhouse (who’s along for at least part of this tour) presenting a new release, the orchestra’s recording of Stephen Paulus’ Holocaust memorial, To Be Certain of the Dawn. Then, on Thursday, the BBC broadcasts recent Minnesota Orchestra recordings, including samplings from its well-reviewed Beethoven symphony cycle and a sneak preview of the Beethoven piano Concerto No. 4, which was recorded only weeks ago in Minneapolis and is not scheduled for release until 2010.

The First Half of the First Concert of the European Tour

The Barbican is utterly sold out, something that audience members and Barbican staff keep saying never happens in London. There is so much symphonic music (not to mention theater) available here on any given night that sold-out classical concerts are rare. Two audience members I do not know take pains to tell me how fond London is of the Minnesota Orchestra. Advance publicity by Vänskä has clearly helped.

Josh Bell as soloist has helped, too. Bell is the classical music world’s equivalent of Hugh Jackman or maybe Brad Pitt, if he looked a little younger and wasn’t married to a crazy person. After the brief Adams piece, the orchestra pauses for a few moments and then Bell enters. The audience has been waiting for this, and they let him know it. He wears his signature untucked black silk shirt, no tie, and an open collar. All flowy and poetical again. It’s hard work, playing that Stradivarius.

The Barber concerto is a lyrical, complex thing and the sound in the Barbican is crisp and bright, too crisp and bright for me. Bell is great fun to watch, bending and swaying and moving with the music, now facing the audience, now turned toward the orchestra when he’s not playing, now back facing the audience, who is waiting for the third movement.

Barber named it “Presto in moto perpetuo,” which essentially means “really peppy, all the time, and I mean it.” It’s always impressive to watch a musician break a sweat just moving fingers and elbows around, and Bell makes it look as easy as practicing scales. He delivers passion and emotion, and don’t let anyone tell you that Brits don’t dig that. One, two, three curtain calls—Vänskä sends him out alone on the third one—then a fourth, and then he rewards the audience with an encore.

Bell tells the London audience he’ll play an tune written by Henri Vieuxtemps, a nineteenth-century violinist. It’s a tune from the Revolutionary War, Bell announces: “Sorry about that.” An elaborate introduction disguises the central theme of “Yankee Doodle,” which gets a good laugh. Bell’s fingers dance through colossal pyrotechnics embroidered in and around the familiar theme that have his fellow violinists in the orchestra shaking their heads and grinning. The sound climbs higher and higher through a pizzicato riff and then Bell gets the Strad to sound like a wee little piccolo before a fast, brilliant, bravura conclusion.

“Gosh,” says a Brit sitting behind me. See? They aren’t so reserved all the time.

Two more curtain calls to yells of “Bravo!” Because the woman sitting next to me knows I’m from Minnesota, she explains this is unusual behavior for the locals. “We don’t do standing ovations here in London.”

Intermission Backstage

Well, surprise. Cellist Steven Isserlis and his wife, Pauline, made it to the concert. Pianist Stephen Hough is there, and Colin Currie, the percussionist; they’ve all played with the Minnesota in Minneapolis and they all know Bell. Orchestra players are chugging water out of bottles and some change shirts. The Beethoven to come requires fresh linen.

The Second Half of the First Concert of the European Tour

European audiences are usually dead-quiet and cough-less. They listen attentively and they know their repertoire. Tonight’s lot is primed for the Eroica symphony, and the audience is not disappointed. Here in the Barbican and there in the orchestra the dynamic range was wide and impressive: the softs were very soft, the louds very loud, unlike DVD players in one’s car. The attacks (when the players dig into a particular note of music) were clear and articulate and just plain fun to watch. Vänskä is light on his feet up there on the podium and when the third movement shifts into the fourth with nary a pause, he’s literally dancing. The audience, in the half-light, appears riveted.

Those educated European audiences often wait a moment or two after the final note is played to let the sound hang, linger, and fade away, but not tonight. The baton is barely down before “Bravo!”s sound and the applause begins. They like it, they really like it.

After four curtain calls, Vänskä takes a deep bow and turns to the orchestra to play an encore. It’s Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” or “Sad Waltz.” It has notably-quiet-followed-by-very-quiet bits, punctuated by swells and sweeps of rich sound. It showcases the relationship between Vänskä and the players and makes clear that they are paying close attention to each other.

Another great burst of applause and it’s done. The first concert of the Minnesota Orchestra’s fourth European tour is over.

Tomorrow, Berlin.

Filed for the Pioneer Press Tues, Feb 24, 2009.

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