Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra
photo by Greg Helgeson
This weekend Minnesota Orchestra presents the holiday favorite, Handel’s “Messiah.” To read the reviews, you might think that these critics had been at different concerts. See how they react to Vanska’s interpretation of the work, and click on their names to read their full reviews.
Osmo Vänskä has never made his home in the opera house. Nor is the Baroque period his specialty. As a result, his first “Messiah” with Minnesota Orchestra, heard Wednesday morning at Orchestra Hall, was a decidedly mixed bag.
Handel’s oratorio can be a tough nut to crack because it is a dramatic work with no narrative to propel the action. But Vänskä seemed out of tune with the drama, ignoring the work’s three-act structure (organized around Christ’s Nativity, the crucifixion and the resurrection), by placing the intermission in the middle of the crucifixion section.
Throughout, he tended to regard the arias and choruses as discrete musical numbers rather than as part of a dramatic whole. And his conducting lacked a degree of forward propulsion, particularly in the recitatives.
Going local has helped the Minnesota Orchestra create a marvelous “Messiah.” While the orchestra has recently been importing English experts in the baroque and choral fields to conduct its annual performances of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, its music director, Osmo Vanska, has been asked to put his stamp on this year’s interpretation. And that he did midday Wednesday at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, breathing fresh life into the work with widely varying dynamics, delicate pianissimos at one end of the sound spectrum, exuberant explosions at the other…
Another Twin Cities product was also a standout. Tenor Thomas Cooley is a Minneapolis native making a living in European opera houses, and he was the one among the four vocal soloists who displayed the firmest grasp of what Vanska wanted to do dynamically. The unusually soft approach he took to his opening aria proved a fascinating choice, as did the fury with which he suffused “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”
Rather than delivering the crisp, plain tempos favored by buffs of “authenticity” in classical music, Vänskä flavors his Handel with rich drama and dynamic contrasts in a manner that makes clear why the stormy Beethoven was such a fan.
This approach particularly paid off in the famous chorus “Unto Us a Child is Born,” which builds from hushed tones to a thrilling full-throated declaration by the exceptional, precise Minnesota Chorale. Another show-stopper was countertenor Brian Asawa’s “He Was Despised.” Asawa wrings drama from every fraction of every syllable of this lament, and he has the deeply furrowed brow to match the impeccable grief of his singing. Even in 1742, sad songs said so much.