Conductor Osmo Vänskä and the NSO stumble a bit at the Finnish line

The conductor Osmo Vänskä resigned his post as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra in October, during the musicians’ 16-month lockout. On Thursday, three months after the musicians returned to work, the orchestra board voted to return him to the music director post with a two-year contract.

And on Thursday night, he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

It was an eventful day — and an oddly anticlimactic night.

Labor disputes, though they have their own theatrical elements, are not a natural fit for the performing arts. Most of Thursday night’s audience probably didn’t yet know that Vänskä had reclaimed his former job. Indeed, you could argue that the fact was hardly relevant to his appearance in Washington, although it was cause for general joy across the country.

Many in the audience, though, might have remembered Vänskä from his frequent past visits to the NSO’s podium, often with music by Sibelius and Kalevi Aho — two Finnish composers particularly dear to Vänskä’s heart, whose music he led here yet again on the first half of Thursday’s program.

And the conductor’s signature energy has been abundantly on display with the Minnesota Orchestra, documented on a number of recordings, including this year’s Grammy Award winner for Best Orchestral Performance: two symphonies by Sibelius.

It would have been nice to write the story of a triumphant return. But the night’s performance, though likable and energetic, wasn’t winning any awards. Vänskä certainly brings understanding and engagement to the table, particularly when it comes to Sibelius, whose Third Symphony opened the program. He also plumbs the extremes of sound. He pulled the orchestra back in the second movement, to a sound so distilled it was almost homeopathic, the merest tinge of affect on the ear; he extended the moment and then, gradually, allowed the music to regain its color and return to the realm of the clearly audible, but in a different musical terrain than the one from which it started out.

But the orchestra sounded consistently fuzzy — not quite together, not quite in focus. This was even more pronounced in the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony, which seemed on paper like a perfect piece for a major conductor on a happy occasion, but in which the ensemble playing — best described as woolly — left a lot to be desired.

The evening’s three works were about the same length, hovering between 25 minutes and a half -hour. The longest and, for most listeners, the most engaging was Aho’s clarinet concerto played by Martin Fröst — a brilliant soloist in his NSO debut who, in tightly tailored black pants on a spindly frame, looked something like a clarinet himself. This was no mere showcase; Aho writes big for both soloist and orchestra, and Vänskä, who has conducted and recorded this piece with Fröst a number of times, led with big, generous motions, except when standing aside to let Fröst burble and flutter and whomp through some of the virtuosic solo passages.

Aho writes supremely competent music: the kind of concertos — and he’s written them for a panoply of instruments — that players love to play. The solo line kept seamlessly handing off its phrases to other instruments, with a sleight-of-hand effect that’s one of a good orchestra’s best tricks — in which a clarinet suddenly turns into a violin, or a flute, at least as far as one’s ears are concerned. The music offered moments of lyrical meditation and moments of exhilarating power, alternating back and forth, just as a concerto should. That I didn’t find it as involving as I expected was not, I think, the fault of the performers. Ultimately, it seemed a little facile, though Fröst, with a natural magnetism, did his best to sell it.

He then offered a contrast with an encore — a purely fun klezmer dance, “Let’s be Happy,” arranged for clarinet and orchestra by Göran Fröst, who happens to be his brother. It was so energetic and toe-tapping that it almost didn’t matter that the orchestra and soloist were so seldom in sync.

Vänskä might not have managed to transform the NSO on this night, but he remains a significant artist.

The larger question, beyond his appearance here, is how he will fare with the new, reduced and somewhat lamed Minnesota Orchestra in the wake of the crippling lockout, during which many players left the orchestra. A two-year contract is not a long-term commitment, but it is a chance to start to rebuild — and a final, closing chord, like the rousing ending of the Sibelius, on a long and unhappy chapter.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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