Conductor Roderick Cox Presides Over Exciting Minnesota Orchestra Concert
Even before the Internet, over-familiarity was a problem in classical music. Too many tracks available in too many recordings, with popular works endlessly recycled through live concerts.
So how do you turn an old workhorse like Grieg’s Piano Concerto into a freshly prepared young stallion? Italian pianist Alessio Bax demonstrated how to do this at the Minnesota Orchestra concert on Thursday.
There was snap and attitude to Bax’s account of Grieg’s opening move, the rhythms darting like a band of Norwegian trolls dancing mischievously.
The poetry came in the softer melody of the second subject, Bax allowing himself a considerable relaxation of the tempo. His cadence was explosive, but also subtle: Bax judiciously built the dynamic arc from soft to strong, making what often becomes a crash-bang-wallop dramatic.
Was the slow movement a little blunt and impatient? May be. But Bax’s coltishness in the finale made up for it, his chiseling of detail consistently drawing attention without seeming overrated.
Associate conductor Roderick Cox, leading his second subscription concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, bonded closely with Bax’s crackling approach to Grieg, creating a particularly enjoyable space for the flute solo in the final movement.
Cox’s natural feeling for the rubato – small variations of a basic tempo, used for expressive purposes – was even more prominent in Dominick Argento’s “Valentino Dances”, the work that opened the program.
The whirlwind and swagger of Argento’s music – from his opera “Valentino’s Dream” – were captivated by Cox’s interpretation, with glimpses of the insecurity lurking beneath the dashing public figure of the iconic Latin lover. William Schimmel played the role of an important, tango-tasting accordion, and was sensitively amplified.
Argento himself was present for the concert. October 27 marks her 90th birthday, with Thursday’s performance being the Minnesota Orchestra’s gift to its award-winning composer. In terms of time, the gesture could have been more generous: “Valentino Dances” only lasts 10 minutes. However, the performance itself was heartily loving and brilliantly dispatched by the players.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s last completed work, came after the intermission. Like the Argento, it’s a superficially shiny piece that houses distinctly darker corners.
One of them is in the opening movement, where an alto saxophone and an English horn combine for a passage that seems to perfectly distill Slavic melancholy. Both parts were played beautifully.
Cox was at the forefront of the unstable central movement, using smooth club and body movements to convey the movement of this supposed waltz beset by a slight sway of seasickness.
The finale tingled with edgy energy, and Cox drove the tumultuous climax home with an expert sense of theatricality and timing.
Although Cox’s Minnesota Orchestra first subscription was in January, this second gig was even better – more confident and flexible, more freely expressive. Hopefully Cox can continue working with the orchestra beyond the 2017-18 season, after which his contract will expire.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.