Minnesota Orchestra -- part of the backbone of US music

Neville Marriner's appointment as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra may have come as something of a surprise to those who associated him with the chamber orchestra that made him so celebrated a conductor -- the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Would it be possible for one of the elegant stylists in the late baroque (and beyond) literature to bridge the gap between Bach and Brahms, Handel and Honneger? Of course, to investigate the Marriner catalog is to note excursions as far into the recent past as Schonberg. And to encounter Marriner with his new orchestra on tour is to realize that doubts were idle and foolish.

As the orchestra was not stopping in Boston (two nights were scheduled for Carnegie Hall), a trip to the Hopkins Center on the Dartmouth College campus found the orchestra playing in the exemplary, potentially cruelly honest and revealing acoustic there -- remarkable sound for a 900- plus seat theater. And by today's larger-and- larger-house standards, concertgoing at "The Hop" is a rare and intimate delight.

The Minnesota is on that remarkably high level that makes it part of the backbone of the musical scene in this country today -- with executional levels higher than any equivalent in Europe, though not achieving the excellence of some of the preeminent domestic ensembles such as Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago.

The Minnesota plays with a dedication and a fervor not always (or, in some cases, often) encountered in the so-called "big six." The strings have a nice quality, slightly lean but very communicative. The winds blend well, the brass is solid though not altogether lustrous. And the tympanist is quite a marvel of strength and subtlety when needed.

All this fused into a marvelous Schumann, a performance that assured the listener things are in fine shape in Neville Marriner's hands in Minneapolis. It whetted one's appetite for future encounters with both orchestra and music director.

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