Photo: Brandon Patoc


Review: Minnesota Orchestra’s visiting French conductor, pianist cast a spell

27th April, 2017

Thursday felt a lot more like early March than late April in the Twin Cities. It was the kind of almost wintry weather that should have inspired more patrons to pack tissues or cough drops when heading to the Minnesota Orchestra’s midday concert. That lack of foresight came quite close to ruining a very good performance.

Specifically, it was the slow movement of Maurice Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto. French pianist Lisa de la Salle was casting a spell with a heartbreaking extended solo, evoking something that sounded like a complex combination of gentleness, strength and sadness. And then the coughs broke out, bursting like little explosions throughout the hall and shattering the moving mood de la Salle had created. By the time the orchestra joined her after a few minutes, the cough count was up in the 20s, the attempts to muffle them rare.

But it was a strong interpretation by the pianist nonetheless, and the upper respiratory exclamations weren’t nearly as invasive during expertly crafted performances of selections from Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and Sergei Prokofiev’s war-torn Fifth Symphony by guest conductor Ludovic Morlot and the orchestra. This is definitely a program worth catching. Just don’t forget the cough drops.

If you think of the orchestra as an instrument, Maurice Ravel was one of history’s master virtuosos. It’s likely that fellow Frenchman Morlot has been hearing this music since childhood, which might help account for the grace and depth he and the orchestra brought to their performance of five movements from “Mother Goose.” The winds were wondrous throughout, the strings sumptuous on their striving, swelling ascent at the end of “The Enchanted Garden.”

Pianist de la Salle is another French-born musician who’s probably been hearing Ravel since the cradle, so it’s no surprise that she’d bring such depth and breadth to her performance of his G-major Piano Concerto. Then again, my experience over the course of a decade of her occasional Twin Cities visits has led me to believe her a rare combination of heart, smarts, technique and interpretive wisdom, no matter the composer.

In the case of this concerto, she emphasized the jazz elements, interjections blurting out from the high keys like big band brass before she’d smoothly segue into a sultry torch song of a quiet section. Her touch both delicate and powerful, de la Salle created a dreamy foundation beneath Marni Hougham’s lovely English horn solo on the slow movement, then delivered the thrill of the chase on a scampering finale.

Written as war raged in 1944, Prokofiev’s Fifth often echoes the relentless gravitas of his fellow Russian Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony. Timpani and bass drum thunder like bombs, dance rhythms re-emerge as violent pounding, playful sections become discomfiting and demonic. Morlot and the orchestra emphasized the work’s darkness, but impressed most during the lithe interweaving exchanges of the second movement and a chilling transition from dream to nightmare on the Adagio. And, when all 89 musicians were unleashing the full force of their sound, not a cough could be heard.


27 April 2017
Rob Hubbard / Pioneer Press