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Concerto should be a Divertimento!!

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
01/07/2015 -  & January 8, 2015
Carl Nielsen: Little Suite, Op. 1
Marc Neikrug: Bassoon Concerto
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major “Rhenish”, Op. 97

Christopher Millard (bassoon)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, John Storgårds (conductor)

J. Storgårds (Courtesy of NACO)

The National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) kicked off 2015 with the Canadian premiere of American composer Marc Neikrug’s Bassoon Concerto, and a further podium appearance by Finnish maestro John Storgårds whose appointment as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor effective September, 2015, was announced the previous day.

If there’s an emerging unifying factor for NACO’s 2014-2015 season it would be the exceptional range of skilled new and established conductors who are appearing. The season is Pinchas Zukerman’s final one as music director. During last September then November he conducted numerous generally excellent concerts, bookending the orchestra’s well received UK tour in October. November also encompassed stellar appearances by Zukerman’s successor, Alexander Shelley, and by Michael Francis, another emerging and brilliant British conductor who’ll be at the helm of Canada’s National Youth Orchestra this summer.

Mr. Storgårds currently is Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Like Zukerman, he is also a violinist of distinction and it’s no surprise he got the best playing from the orchestra’s string sections during Wednesday’s performance, beginning with Carl Nielsen’s early, delicately beautiful Little Suite for strings. The opening Praeludium, with its ‘four... one...two...’ rhythms initiated by cellos then taken up by violins, had rock solid overall authority. This standard continued with the Intermezzo, a lilting waltz almost echoing Edvard Grieg, and the Finale, its dark introduction leading to alternately vigorous and suave textures.

Marc Neikrug’s Bassoon Concerto was co-commissioned by NACO, the Boston Symphony, Washington’s National Symphony and the Milwaukee Symphony, and received its world premiere in Boston just over a year ago, late November, 2013. The work is interesting and, to be sure, brilliantly orchestrated and structured, but does not come across as a Concerto in the commonly accepted sense of showpiece for solo instrument supported by orchestra and structured in symphonic/sonata form.

If anything, Neikrug’s new work is a showpiece for the orchestra more than bassoon and, I believe, might be more appropriately titled Divertimento for Chamber Orchestra, Bassoon and Percussion. As Robert Markow’s always erudite program notes clarify, the array of percussion (requiring three players) encompasses small, medium and large suspended cymbals, triangle, maracas, marimba, crotales, xylophone, whip, tambourine, tam-tam, anvil, vibraphone, bass drum, side drum, mark tree, and two gongs!!

While there is frequent, and sometimes clever enough dialogue between the bassoon and the percussion it is no surprise that, even with a fine player such as NACO’s principal bassoonist Christopher Millard as soloist, the instrument soon becomes lost in the sonic shuffle. The bassoon simply does not have the range of dynamics, sonority or intonation to compete with a percussion section that might be on loan from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps or Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Even the brief cadenza in the final movement is more elaborately academic than showy or otherwise striking, and it seems token.

Mr. Storgårds brought a hefty approach to Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3, which concluded the concert. The opening movement, Lebhaft, started with just the right joyous, impetuous quality which is so familiar from the composer’s early piano works. The second movement, Scherzo, was more lyrical than lightly playful. The third movement, Nicht schnell, continued a bucolic mood while the fourth, Feierlich, was notable for the sombre brass opening with pizzicato string accompaniment leading to more sustained strings featuring an intense, dark melody reaching a contrapuntal climax. The final movement, Lebhaft, was given a spirited, mainly clean reading and the two-note second subject was particularly striking. The brass players sometimes were a tad rough, not so much the more common intonation issues as the players more than once failing to initiate chords in complete unison.

Overall, however, the concert was an admirable presentation of music which was both agreeable and challenging for listeners and bodes well for future performances conducted by John Storgårds . If Marc Neikrug’s Bassoon Concerto doesn’t quite come off as such, it’s an impressive new composition nonetheless, and blended nicely with the Nielsen and Schumann.

Charles Pope Jr.



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