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NSO Gets Lucky With Truls Mørk

Truls Mørk - click through for recordings
Truls Mørk
Massachusetts native and Washington-state resident Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, better known to us as Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000), had 131 opus numbers under his composer-belt when he took to his second symphony, “Mysterious Mountain.” Even though this relentlessly prolific composer went on to add 65 more symphonies and 303 more works altogether to his output, “Mysterious Mountain,” the work the National Symphony Orchestra opened Thursday’s concert with, remains his most famous work, by far. His popularity is no surprise, given his musical language. It is very approachable, easily enjoyable, but never panders. It is never saccharine and does not deny its 20th-century frame of reference. His influences were many… Japanese, Korean, and Indian music among them (they all came after the composition of Symphony No. 2) – but the most important was Armenia, the homeland of his ancestors. Hovhaness knows how to employ large orchestral forces to great effect (if not always maximum variety), and for all the breadth of his symphonies, he was always wise enough to be no more elaborate and lingering than necessary. “Mysterious Mountain” sounds like it should be an hour-plus symphony, but it only lasts some twenty minutes. Hovhaness sounds very English with a distinct North-West flavor. The width of Bruckner, sounds of Elgar, Holst, or Delius with a teensy-weensy bit of New Age… if that helps. It’s music that seems to suit Slatkin particularly well, and it is music that makes for a very good prelude to the Elgar Cello Concerto that followed.

The Elgar is one of the great concertos for the cello, even if it took Jacqueline du Pré to catapult it to its current fame. (Listen to her first recording with Sir John Barbirolli and you will understand…) Truls Mørk is one of the great cellists of our day, and it was a shame that he played to a shockingly empty Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Opting for expression over beauty, Truls Mørk has a tone that, while not very big, is meticulous, and he gets a very distinguished sound out of his 1723 Domenico Montagnana. This is not to say that beauty was in short supply. Both performance and work had and have more than plenty of that to offer. Indeed, it is near-impossible to listen to Mr. Mørk play the Elgar concerto and simultaneously think of a living cellist one would rather hear in it. The NSO did very well, too, but in the second and third movement I should have liked to hear them dig a little deeper.

Dvořák’s 6th symphony is a welcome departure from the more regularly performed last three of his symphonies. It’s not neglected, really (it was last played by the NSO just under five years ago), but given how satisfying a work it is by a composer as popular in this country as Dvořák, you’d think it would be more common fare, still. (I am not sure if all the NSO players feel the same way about it… perhaps some have yet to be convinced of the work’s value.) The symphony – and the first movement especially – is like a walk in the lush forests of central Europe, taking in the fresh air in deep breaths and enjoying the gusty winds. For those for whom that description is too lofty I offer the - admittedly crude - division of Dvořák’s symphonies in three bundles for orientation. “Wagner” (1-3), “Brahms” (4-6), and “Echt-Dvořák” (7-9). But the Sixth, while noticeably ‘Brahmsian’ (again: especially in the first movement) is by no means derivative (even if it were, worse things could be said of a symphony than that it has a ‘Brahmsian’ touch…); and come the Scherzo (Furiant): Presto you will find yourself in the very Slavonic world of Dvořák’s dances.

In a recent discussion of the relative merits of BSO and NSO (I insisted the latter to be superior by a fair margin, still – although perhaps less consistent) I conceded that I would not mind swapping (almost) the entire brass section with Baltimore for the NSO’s benefit. (The Dvořák 9th with the BSO last week had exactly that last bit of warmth and hue that Charles and I thought missing in an otherwise impressive NSO 'Tchaik.4' performance.) The NSO’s trumpets made that point again in the Dvořák 6th. The mentioned Scherzo and the spirited finale danced and brushed away most qualms, though, ending a nicely balanced program successfully.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t concerts that deserve to play to empty seats, but this one is distinctively not one of them. You may not have heard of Truls Mørk, but if you don’t hear him now you’ll come to regret it before long. With such music and performers, there is no reason the NSO should be playing to less than a half-capacity crowd. Tickets will be available a-plenty for anyone who walks up to the Kennedy Center either today or tomorrow at 8PM. Ionarts’ academic crowd shoud note that with the student discount it should be an inexpensive way to get lucky with impress that classical music-loving sophomore from across the hall.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Hey ... keep your (brass section swiping) paws to yourself! Looks like you're stuck with your own brass section, anyway, and they're doing just fine. (We're definitely keeping our STRINGS!)

Good review - and look, you got that funky o right, too!

A fan,

Anonymous said...

believe you me, you are *more* than welcome to keep those strings!


jfl said...

I am not familiar with Hovhaness so I went to ITunes Music Store. It appears to have only 3 movements? Is that the whole thing? And ITunes does not have the 2nd movement...jsut the first & third.

Three movements is it.

I.Andante con moto (~8 min)
II.Double fugue - moderato maestoso (~6 minutes)
III.Andante espressivo (~6 min)

Princess Alpenrose said...

Hovaness is good, really good, and underrated, so I'm glad to see his music being promoted.

We'll keep our brass section, such as it is, we'll keep our strings, which have much to recommend them (justifiably, I think)!

And lookie here ...

We've got ourselves a nice new conductor coming up! I'm personally very excited about Marin Alsop coming to Baltimore.

Does ionarts do interviews? (Can we get Mark to come home for a few weeks and interview Marin???)

Anonymous said...

We'll look into interviewing her. Ionarts will have an interview with the NSO Pops conductor Emil De Cou early 2006 which should be fun - because Ionarts isn't exactly the NSO-Pops crowd and we are allowed to be irreverent. Maestro De Cou is a good sport for having agreed to it, despite having been warned. I would not be surprised if an interview can be arranged with Maestra Alsop at some point. Alas, so far only Mark seems to share your enthusiasm for M.A. being the new conductor. I hope it won't be a disaster - but I am still convinced that it is not at all what the BSO needed. (As were they...)


Princess Alpenrose said...

Thanks! Please, PLEASE let me know when ionarts will go to a BSO Pops concert. I'd like to be there for that!

They really like and respect Marin in England and she seems to have a good reputation in Europe. What exactly is everyone's complaint over here? Is she "too nice"?

Princess Alpenrose said...

Say, ionarts, if I can get my former mother in law Vivian Adelberg Rudow, a well known & respected Baltimore composer, to give me a decent interview about the upcoming recording of her work URBO TURBO by the London Symphony Orchestra in November(ie if she can calm down enough!) would you guys edit it [kindly] and post it?

Her website with bio & credentials is at

Anonymous said...

Andrea: With LSO credentials backing up your former mother-in-law's work, she can get the all-exclusive extra-deluxe ionarts-interview treatment package. Looking forward to it.

("Urbo Turbo"??? oyoyoy... what kind of a name is that? That will have to be the first question! :)

Ms.Alsop did some wonderful stuff with Bournemouth, no doubt. I think people draw parallels with Birmingham/Rattle - which is overshooting by some distance, but still - I've very much enjoyed her recordings on Naxos of Adams, Glass et al.. But a shoe that fits one pair of feet (or 85, as it were) does not necessarily fit another 90+ pairs... and knowing the little I do about her, about the BSO, about the BSO and her (and - worst of all - of her Brahms), I have not yet been convinced that she's a great fit for the BSO. We know why she's the wanted candidate for the board (can you say "free publicity"??) but that will get pretty old, pretty quick. She's made tremendous headway with her speach to the orchestra before the announcement - but I am not sure if it is enough... (and it won't change her Brahms, will it?!)

Since I might be around to hear the BSO/Alsop connection, I am of course hopeful for a great or even just 'good' combination - but doubts remain. Especially since - in my eyes - it's been little steps down, conductor-wise, from the redoubtable near-genius D.Zinman to the traffic-conducting one-armed seal Temirkanov to the "Let's work that E-flat into a D, Team" Maestra. You say, with a sardonic wink, that we might think her "too nice"... Well... there's something to it. I think a Dutoit would do the orchestra a whole lot better at the stage that it is at. I think that a better, more established orchestra (Pittsburgh, for example) would have been a better fit for Alsop - in part because the orchestra could absorb her better. Alas, that's all idle talk now - and we've got hope. If nothing else, we'll have premiere Adams and Glass and Higdon and Barber and Bernstein and Daugherty and Rouse and Tower and Torke and Collins and possibly Diamond and maybe Rochberg - which would be most pleasing indeed. I've always wanted Washington to have a second(ary) orchestra with that kind of repertoire. :)


Princess Alpenrose said...

Some very astute comments, there, jfl. I agree with everything you said, EXCEPT

1-your "redoubtable near genius" David Zinman is the same aging hipster who's trying all those funkadelic, alcohol laced late night symphony shenanigans described elsewhere in ionarts

2-Baltimore is not DC's "secondary" orchestra! We have our own identity, damnit.

The BSO is a major league orchestra in a proudly, ridiculously and painfully publicly provincial big city/small town with a great many artistic chips on our shoulder all our own, thank you very much! Ugh.

Wanna hear about Vivian's major orchestral work, the first work by a Baltimorean (and woman) premiered by the BSO [on a program with Itzak Perlman] containing intense and complex pecussion parts and 8-point counterpoint in like 1984, and she's won all these awards at home and abroad and toured and recorded, but they've refused to play her music since then? Double UGH!

Anonymous said...

Zinman is surely not behind the funkodelic Zurich hipsterizing. He's a conductor like the US have few (I consider him among the two best) and he knows how to build audiences, make palatable the lesser known, make the better known sound anew. If you've ever heard what he can get out of an orchestra (be it the BSO or the NSO), you'd cry a many tear that Baltimore ever let him go... or that the NSO will not likely get him to replace Slatkin. (Who, actually, I would like to hang around for another year, given what he's done over the last season.)


Princess Alpenrose said...

I did live in Baltimore then, I did love his conducting and what he made of our orchestra, and oh how we did cry! (Rumor has it that "Temirkanov stole the BSO's soul", so that's what we've got now. And we lost the Symphony Chorus, too) But we're not getting Zinman back, and Temirkanov is leaving, and now we have Marin. I really hope it works out!

I think Charles said the funky party stuff was Zinman ...

Charles T. Downey said...

Tim Smith, music critic for the Baltimore Sun, is the one who said it. I merely quoted it in this post. I would not be surprised, however, if it were parties other than Zinman who are actually responsible for the idea.

Princess Alpenrose said...
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