Osmo Vanska is a very fine conductor. In recent years, he’s been at the center of one of the most upsetting and then most uplifting stories in the orchestra world: the Minnesota Orchestra’s long lockout at the hands of its management (during which he resigned as music director in protest), followed by the Minnesota Orchestra’s rebirth, in the course of which he returned as music director and, most recently, led them triumphantly at Carnegie Hall.
His appearance with the NSO on Thursday night was, like his recent career path, up and down.
This week sees a big, meaty program that hits a sweet spot for aficionados. I talk a lot about warhorses in this orchestra’s sometimes unimaginative programming, but to label the Brahms first piano concerto a warhorse isn’t quite accurate: Brahms’s two concertos are more magnificent and rarer beasts altogether, so long and massive that they are always an event. The concerto was followed by the Beethoven “Pastoral” symphony, the sixth, which — okay, if you’re going to use the term “warhorse,” most of the Beethoven symphonies could apply.
But if the program on paper was meaty, the Brahms concerto was not. In fact, it seemed oddly disjunct. The soloist was Nikolai Lugansky, an adroit, urbane player who is at once virtuosic and slightly cool, and he was certainly up to the piece’s challenges. Yet the whole thing sounded somehow thin — in part because, at the very start of the piece, Vanska reined in its signature darkness and bite, taking a softer, gentler approach that downplayed the contrast when the second theme came in.
Time and again, in the first two movements, the orchestra sounded squashed, as if the spark that came from Lugansky were extinguished in a kind of mushy sound, in which the first violins sounded particularly restrained. I wondered if part of the issue was simply the conductor’s adapting to the hall — though he has conducted here before. Not until the final movement did everything start to come together, with more consistently striking playing from Lugansky matched by more crispness and authority from the orchestra, which gave rise to the suspicion that the concerto might sound markedly better at the next performance.
Or is it just that Vanska isn’t at his best in Brahms? He certainly is in Beethoven. His reading of the Pastoral was as opinionated and lively as anyone could wish, vivid and clear and sharply delineated without exaggerations, from the bagpipe drone of the country dance to a softness and limpidness in the quiet music after the rainstorm that evoked the shimmer of moist air in a mist of sunlight. This, it’s clear, is Vanska’s home turf, and he got the orchestra to follow him. The Brahms, however, was ripe for more exploration.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.