Unclogging the classical music experience has been a top priority for the Minnesota Orchestra’s summer programs since it launched the Vienna Sommerfest in the 1970s. Lying on the carpet, chatting with Beethoven (well, an actor playing him), beer and sausage in the square: the idea has always been that being serious about music doesn’t mean you can’t make it fun.
But I don’t recall an orchestra having a more fun-loving conductor than John Kimora Parker in their summer concerts. The Canadian pianist is an excellent player who also clearly understands that he is part of the entertainment industry, and that potential audience members have multiple options available to them.
So showmanship and accessibility are a big part of what Parker brings to Summer at Orchestra Hall. But we also get some specialized interpretations of the piano repertoire from the bargain. That was certainly the case on Friday’s opening night, for Parker not only admirably expressed the hyper-kinetic spirit of Felix Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, but summoned all the heart-rending romance one could desire from the work’s central slow movement.
It was a fun concert climax that featured a vividly rendered version of Beethoven’s chronically underrated Eighth Symphony, led by conductor Parker who ran for his money for pure entertainment value, the high-energy conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Lee Mills. He established a wonderful relationship with the orchestra, and provided some powerful interpretive ideas for not only Beethoven, but some Brazilian imports.
One was the curtain raiser for the concert, Clarice the Lion’s “Brazilian Fanfare”. While the composer will be spending time in the Twin Cities as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s newest “Sandbox” resident, this was a work she wrote 17 years ago. While it’s bright, energetic, and a great sampler of a handful of Brazilian dance tunes, it didn’t feel particularly big.
But Mendelssohn’s ensuing concerto did just that, and the orchestra made it a clear and compelling example of how Mendelssohn helped usher in the Romantic era. While Parker’s road with its rapid-fire sections was quite the adrenaline rush – the finale sounds like the soundtrack to a movie chase scene – Andante showed off the delicate touch of the pianist and the delicious approach of Mills and the orchestra.
As if to emphasize the sense of fun Parker brings to the concert, he chose to appear with his own arrangement of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which, I was pleased to find, was a hit with some of the teens and 20-somethings in my department who clapped and sang along. . Nice to know the classics last.
A significantly more recent piece is 2015’s “Esboco de Psyché” by Brazilian composer Rodrigo Cicelli Veloso. It proved to be a fine collection of instrumental pieces which the flutists in the orchestra shone on.
I am happy to say that Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony bears the same kind of lucid, brooding performance that the orchestra is destined to score under Osmo Wanska. Fostering widely varied dynamics, Mills proves to be a very fun leader to watch, and his glowing cues fit perfectly with this summer festival’s theme of “Music in Motion.” And for her emphasis on making music fun.
What: Summer in the Orchestra Hall
when: until August 5th
where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, MPLS.
the tickets: Free- $90, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. reach him at email@example.com.