NSO Gets Lucky With Truls Mørk 

(published first at ionarts)

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.

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