First published in the Guardian on 24 August, 2016
Two years ago the Minnesota Orchestra emerged from a bitter lockout during which its music director Osmo Vänskä resigned in protest (he was later rehired). Now here they all are, touring Europe again against the odds, and that ultra-plush, super-charged Minnesota sound is back with a new added edge of tenacity. They played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony like a resounding declaration and Vänskä took big pride in those classic ringing trumpets, sleek winds and gloriously bottom-heavy strings. The match here has always been thrilling — his dynamism on the podium plus the powerful engine of this band — and now there seems something irrepressibly triumphant about it. Sibelius’s brooding tone poem Pohjala’s Daughter opened the concert and the surging energy was immense.
Also tremendously moving was the performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto from Pekka Kuusisto. His account was questioning and troubled: opening phrase unfolded as if in mid-conversation, cadenzas cracked and exploratory, slow movement plain, finale unruly. He made no pretence that the concerto should sound safe — in fact, he made it sound downright vulnerable, a brave antithesis to the romantic showpiece it often becomes.
As an encore Kuusisto played a sad Swedish folk tune called ‘We sold our homes’ with Vänskä duetting on clarinet and orchestra humming the harmonies. He spoke of the lockout and of global homelessness and migration. Here’s a classical performer who genuinely connects what goes on inside the concert hall with the world outside, and that makes him a rare and important performer for our times.