WINONA, Minn. -- The Minnesota Beethoven Festival knows how to end its season every year on the perfect note: program one of the best orchestras in America playing the best symphonies ever written and of course, by Beethoven.
When you program like that, the crowd leaves feeling fulfilled and filled with excitement for the next season. That's exactly what happened Sunday when the Minnesota Orchestra came to town to finish the 2010 season with two Beethoven symphonies.
What was a bit different was the Minnesota Orchestra gave what I consider one of the best orchestral concerts I have ever heard. I agree with Alex Ross of The New Yorker, one of my mentors at my arts fellowship at Columbia University, that Minnesota Orchestra may be the finest orchestra in America (Ross says in the world).
The orchestra's precision, exuberance and sound was out of this world. Under the baton of Osmo Vanska, the Minnesota Orchestra performed Beethoven's fourth and seventh symphonies with uncanny intensity and sensitivity.
This orchestra not only has a lovely, polished sound, but also makes one feel all the emotions of the music and the composer. Vanska pulls out the best of his musicians, and they play with passion and beauty that is heart-warming and heart-stopping.
What impresses me the most is the orchestra's love of the music and translating that through its marvelous musicianship and joyful playing. The orchestra plays with a golden tone, rousing rhythms and a heavenly spirit -- and a sense of ease and death-defying dynamics.
The Minnesota Orchestra finished with the seventh symphony with four gorgeous movements that brought a long standing ovation. Vanska had to pull his concertmaster along so the orchestra could leave the stage.
The seventh symphony should be called "The Ode to Joy," because of how the orchestra mastered the piece from the sweet slow movement to the powerful ending. It was one of the most satisfying performances I have ever experienced from a symphony.
The fourth symphony was brilliant, again showing off Minnesota Orchestra's bright, lively and athletic playing.
After the concert, I sat there stunned with my heart racing. I had seen something very special, but I was not surprised because I have seen many wonderful performances by this orchestra.
Beethoven would have loved the Minnesota Orchestra and probably would have composed for this ensemble.
There's no doubt that this was the best Minnesota Beethoven Festival season in its four years -- from Yo-Yo Ma and the Miro Quartet to Midori and the Minnesota Orchestra. You just can't top this season from top to bottom, but Ned Kirk, the festival's artistic/managing director, will keep trying.
Before Sunday's concert, Kirk announced that saxophonist Branford Marsalis will open the 2011 season with a new classical project and the Minnesota Orchestra will join with the Minnesota Chorale to conclude the season with Beethoven's ninth symphony to complete the symphony cycle. American baritone Thomas Hampson will return to sing river songs at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.