Conductor Xian Zhang reminds me of that torrential tempest that blew through the Twin Cities on Wednesday night. Throwing her whole body into leading an orchestra, she's a relentless mass of movement, one who swirls and sweeps her way around the confines of the podium, like a roiling pot dancing on the stove and about to boil over.
That's an understandable approach for the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, the Russian romantic who filled his scores with such surges of sound and emotion that they beg for more and even more passion and power from an orchestra.
Zhang got what she asked for Friday night at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. Leading the Minnesota Orchestra in a mostly romantic-era program, she amped up the energy and the musicians responded with a performance that sounded as if straining the boundaries of emotional expressiveness. Their Tchaikovsky was all id, devoid of artifice and affectation and eminently enjoyable.
Add to that a knock-it-out-of-the-park performance of Danish composer Carl Nielsen's Flute Concerto — a work rooted in romanticism but on the road toward modernism — and you have a fine showcase for this orchestra's ability to adapt to any guest conductor.
The most intriguing piece may have been its newest. A week after premiering fresh works by seven composers at its annual Composer Institute concert, the orchestra continued to display its acumen with 21st-century music on Chinese-French composer Qigang Chen's work for string orchestra, "L'Eloignement."
It's a layered piece of intensity and beauty that may only ask for four different instruments — violins, violas, cellos and basses — but separates them into 19 groups that often chase one another up and down scales, trading themes and brief rhythmic flurries. Dotted with exceptional solos (particularly by concertmaster Erin Keefe), it was a deeply involving work.
The Nielsen concerto is far more playful, finding principal flutist Adam Kuenzel in animated conversation with musicians throughout the orchestra. It's a demanding piece that asks the flutist to pack a lot of notes into 18 minutes of music, and Kuenzel made it marvelously musical. While Nielsen often seems to have a short attention span, repeatedly introducing new themes, his Flute Concerto benefits from a sprightly spirit that Kuenzel kept buoyant.
The most familiar work on the program was a suite of scenes from Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Sleeping Beauty," but you'll seldom hear it played with more honest urgency and paucity of pretension. It was meticulously executed, and Zhang was a joy to watch, particularly explosive during an engrossing Adagio.
Far 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-model romantic found in "Sleeping Beauty," this was the composer under the influence of Richard Wagner, whose "Ring" cycle Tchaikovsky had recently experienced.
Basses and trombones offer troubled tones absent from most Tchaikovsky, the quest for beauty elbowed aside by dark ruminations appropriate to a tale about the tortures of the damned. But there is beauty, particularly in Gabriel Campos Zamora's contemplative clarinet interlude and some sumptuous strings summoned up by the seemingly windswept Zhang, who looked appropriately exhausted at the concert's conclusion.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. [email protected].