Conductor Xian Zhang discusses the passion and power of the Minnesota Orchestra


Conductor Xian Zhang reminds me of that torrential storm that ripped through the Twin Cities on Wednesday night. Throwing her whole body in the direction of an orchestra, she is a relentless mass of movement, one that swirls and sweeps its way around the confines of the podium, like a pot dancing on the stove and about to boil over.

It’s an understandable approach to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, the Russian romantic who filled his scores with such surges of sound and emotion that they crave more and more passion and power from an orchestra.

Zhang got what she asked for Friday night at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Leading the Minnesota Orchestra in an essentially romantic program, she amplified the energy and the musicians responded with a performance that seemed to push the boundaries of emotional expressiveness. Their Tchaikovsky was all id, devoid of artifice and affectation and eminently enjoyable.

Add to that a stunning rendition of Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Flute Concerto – a work rooted in Romanticism but on the path to Modernism – and you have a fine showcase of this orchestra’s ability to adapt to any guest conductor.

Perhaps the most intriguing piece was his most recent. A week after premiering new works by seven composers at its annual Composers Institute concert, the orchestra continued to show its insight with 21st-century music on the Chinese composer’s work for string orchestra. French Qigang Chen, “The Distance”.

It’s a piece of intensity and layered beauty that may only ask for four different instruments – violins, violas, cellos and basses – but separates them into 19 groups that often continue up and down, swapping themes and short rhythmic bursts. Filled with exceptional solos (notably from concertmaster Erin Keefe), it was a deeply engaging work.

Nielsen’s concerto is much more playful, finding principal flautist Adam Kuenzel in lively conversation with musicians from across the orchestra. It’s a demanding piece that requires the flautist to put a lot of notes into 18 minutes of music, and Kuenzel has made it wonderfully musical. While Nielsen often seems to have a short attention span, repeatedly introducing new themes, his Flute Concerto benefits from a sharp wit that Kuenzel kept vibrant.

The most familiar work on the program was a suite of scenes from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Sleeping Beauty,” but you’ll rarely hear it performed with more honest urgency and lack of pretension. It was meticulously executed and Zhang was a joy to watch, especially explosive during a gripping Adagio.

Much less heard is Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini”, a symphonic fantasy inspired by a story from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”. Rather than the late Romantic model of “Sleeping Beauty”, it was the composer under the influence of Richard Wagner, whose “Ring” cycle Tchaikovsky had recently experimented with.

Basses and trombones offer troubled tones absent from most Tchaikovsky, the quest for beauty jostled by dark ruminations specific to a tale about the tortures of the damned. But there is beauty, especially in Gabriel Campos Zamora’s contemplative clarinet interlude and some sumptuous strings invoked by seemingly windswept Zhang, who looked suitably exhausted by the end of the concert.

Rob Hubbard is a classical music writer from Twin Cities. [email protected].

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