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Review: Vanska uses clarinet to delight Duluth audience

The clarinet has a remarkable ability to summon many moods; in the hands of an expert, the instrument can take the listener into another world.

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska, performing on the clarinet, the instrument that launched his international symphony orchestra career, took a captivated Duluth audience on a delightful journey into the fresh melodies of spring and the complexities and wonder of new love.

Vanska performed with the Artymiw-Keefe-Smith Trio to close the 116th season of the Matinee Musicale series at Mitchell Auditorium on the College of St. Scholastica campus on Tuesday night.

The ensemble performed a wonderful 90-minute program that included works by Ludwig van Beethoven, French modernist Darius Milhaud and German composer and pianist Johannes Brahms. Vanska and trio violinist Erin Keefe, who married in 2015, also delivered just the second public performance of a piece written for them as a wedding gift.

With close to 300 people in the audience, Vanska, pianist Lydia Artymiw and cellist Wilhelmina Smith opened the evening with Beethoven Clarinet Trio Op. 11. The joyous selection proved ideal for one of the first warm spring evenings in the Northland.

Dressed completely in black, Vanska bobbed in his chair as both he and Smith chased the swift piano runs and light, energetic melodies supplied by Artymiw. As moods shifted throughout the performance, the clarinet consistently rose above like a bird gaining flight, carrying the composition to fresh, new places.

Keefe, the Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster, took the stage with Vanska and Artymiw for the second selection of the night, a spirited romp through Milhaud’s 1936 Suite for Violin, Clarinet, Piano Op. 157b. The chemistry between Vanska and Keefe was clear and strong as their instruments blended together throughout the moody, seductive and surprisingly tuneful piece.

Following an intermission, Vanska and Keefe performed what turned out to be the highlight of the evening. Vanska, a native of Finland, told the audience his friend, Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, wrote a violin and clarinet duet titled “Eros” for the newly married couple. Vanska called the piece difficult.

“It’s written for us; we like to play it,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to rehearse.”

The Vanska and Keefe performance of Eros, which is Greek for love, seemed to capture all the complexities and joys of love and marriage. The first movement featured Keefe and her sailing violin, while Vanska performed long and low notes. Keefe plucked the violin at moments in the second movement while Vanska’s playing became more melodic. The 10-minute piece ended with the couple joined together on high notes and smiles on their faces.

Artymiw, Smith and Keefe completed the night with a strong and moving performance of Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C.

Vanska, 63, has long celebrated diversity and music exploration. In a most recent example of this, Vanska led the Minnesota Orchestra on a two-day tour of Cuba last May. The performances were the first by a professional U.S. orchestra since 1999.

In Cuba, Vanska not only led the orchestra through Beethoven and Bernstein but also jammed on clarinet with local musicians in a Havana jazz club.

Sharing the wonders of classical music with a new world.