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Mork and Windy

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/10/2001 -  
Sven-David Sandstrom: Piece for Orchestra # 1 (U.S. Premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto # 1
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 5

Truls Mork (cello)
Swedish Radio Symphony
Manfred Honeck (conductor)

On the short list of audition pieces for aspiring horn players, the lovely solo from the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Fifth is always prominently displayed. Perhaps the quickest way to tell the hornist’s ability to sustain a broad melodic line, the theme was even “appropriated” for a very sappy pop song called “You Fill Up My Senses” some years ago. If the aspirant passes their first set of auditions and is asked to perform an entire piece of orchestral repertoire, one of the most bold and strident scores is the Cello Concerto # 1 of Shostakovich, who might just as well have included the obbligato horn in the title of the work as he had previously done with the Concerto # 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings. Coincidentally, I just recently heard Han-Na Chang perform this cello piece with the Cincinnati Symphony wherein it was coupled with the ”Pathetique”, but last evening was the first time for me to experience both of these challenges for the solo horn on the same program.

As the house lights darkened on this performance of the Swedish Radio Symphony, I was struck with a rather disturbing thought. There were almost as many percussion instruments on the stage as there were people in the audience. Hasn’t any contemporary composer ever realized how much eloquence and power Beethoven or Bruckner was able to summon with just one set of timpani? Life’s too short and the Sandstrom piece too long to spend any more time upon it, but it is interesting to note that the Swedish community in the New York area apparently does not support their local band with anywhere near the turnout of other ethnic groups.

Truls Mork played brilliantly in the Shostakovich. He coaxed every sort of anguished sound from his 18th century Venetian cello, its burnished wood almost black, and carried the day with his powerful, percussive technique. Very adroit when necessary, this polished performer also imbued the long cadenza with empathetic profundity. The hornist, however, was not at the top of his game, slurring rather badly, playing incorrect notes, and struggling for breath in all of the wrong places. His tone was appropriately commanding, but his exhortations were unintelligible. The orchestra provided solid accompaniment, although it was puzzling to hear their conductor, the Austrian Manfred Honeck, skillfully lead them in several crescendi which are not indicated in the score.

Fate doesn’t so much rap on the door of the Tchaikovsky as ooze through the transom. Unlike that of Beethoven or Mahler, this destiny doesn’t attack the protagonist directly; instead it slowly permeates his world. Cold, ghostly and serpentine, it insinuates itself into every pore. Even when it marches it slithers. The challenge for a conductor is to keep his audience interested through the seemingly endless repetitions of this vamping motto. Maestro’s game plan to avoid boring the crowd was to make all phrases in this loquacious essay take on a character of their own. The sound of the ensemble was quite thrilling: superbly blended strings, solid winds, spectacular lower brass. The entire second movement, introduced by a ravishing horn solo (different player) complimented by a gorgeous clarinet undercurrent, was masterful. The rest of the matter was far too precious for my taste, the constant liberties taken by the conductor (especially his habit of inserting dramatic pauses where none exist in nature) beginning rather quickly to test my patience. Admittedly, this symphony is too long and repetitious, but trying to present repeated phrases as if they were a set of variations when they were never intended to be by the composer was just wrongheaded. After a while, the experience became less about Tchaikovsky and more about his interpreter du soir. Overconducting may mesh, albeit uncomfortably, with overcomposing, but, in the case of this particular leader, to paraphrase a great line from Pauline Kael, his toes conducted in his shoes.

Hoist by his own petard, Honeck suffered a considerable embarrassment in the finale. In the silence which followed one particularly histrionic caesura, complete with sweeping left conductorial arm, a lone female voice thinly shrieked out a “bravo”, producing much laughter from the crowd when the music took up again. The serious mood of triumph over destiny was shattered completely. Perhaps if this woman had been in attendance during one of the few Tchaikovsky conducted performances of the piece, the composer would have taken the hint and reduced some of the verbosity of the final moments. But Fate being inexorable, we all had to suffer through each and every last note.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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