Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 16th season for an audience of 300 at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis, Sept. 20, with a competent and accomplished rendition of four compositions that are performed rarely on the concert stage.

The music of Bedrich Smetana, represented by Three Dances from The Bartered Bride, was new to me and opened the evening. The full work received its premiere in 1870, its composition marked by the ferment of political turmoil and rising Czech nationalism that permeated the composer’s native Bohemia at the time. Three excerpts – Polka, Furiant, and Dance of the Comedians – offered a musical picture of the milieu into which John and Lena Tapper, two of my paternal great grandparents, were born.

Playing from memory, guest pianist Paul Kovacovic displayed full control of the Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major by Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in Egypt and premiered in Paris in 1896. The motifs of the second movement form the basis of “Egyptian” as the concerto’s nickname. To my ear, the upper register piano hammers that were supposed to represent the sounds of chirping crickets were less than tunefully bright. Kovacovic’s many domestic and international projects included a collaboration earlier this year with Live Action Set at the Southern Theater.

If her skills as a registered nurse match her facility with the flute, then the patients of Hamsa Isles are well-served at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. This native of Cleveland and founding member of the orchestra displayed her artistry in Voyage for Flute and String Orchestra, a small gem from 1988 by John Corigliano.

The program closed with the Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major, an unflashy but solid and satisfying work composed by Franz Joseph Haydn in Vienna in 1793.

Under the direction of Joseph Schlefke since 2001, the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra and its 53 members have become an articulate ensemble of individually strong, often exceptional, players, prompting no embarrassment and requiring no apology. The opportunity to see and hear them at the Ted Mann Concert Hall was a welcome change from their traditionally smaller and less formal venues. But.

They hold in their grasp the readiness to kick it up a notch artistically. Their collective posture and stage presence reflects an unwarranted reticence and a lack of visible esprit and conviction. Rather than owning the stage, they appear as shy and uncertain visitors. As the organization’s front man and most public face, Schlefke could inspire his troops with a more practiced and self-assured persona. His years of experience and accomplishment should have banished his verbal and physical insecurities long ago.

If it chooses the pursuit, this group is ready to stretch itself into the big-time of higher visibility, greater artistic accomplishment, and heightened public scrutiny and support.

The Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2008-2009 season continues: Dec. 5-6, 7:30pm, Hopkins High School Auditorium, Minnetonka; Mar. 14, 7:30pm, Hamline University, St. Paul; and May 30, 7:30pm, Hamline University, St. Paul. www.mnphil.org

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