Conductor Jun Märkl's NSO Debut Proves a Clever Balancing Act

Conductor Jun Märkl deftly navigated Schumann's light and bombastic passages.
Conductor Jun Märkl deftly navigated Schumann's light and bombastic passages. (Intermusica)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

Schumann is a tricky composer. He's impetuous and emphatic and a little clumsy, and he can be hard to bring across. The National Symphony Orchestra offered not one but two Schumann pieces on its program last night, and their playing matched the music: It, too, was impetuous, emphatic and a little clumsy, even under the often balletic direction of the conductor Jun Märkl, making his NSO debut.

The program was a marked contrast to the all-contemporary evening that had served as the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's CrossCurrents festival the week before, firmly staking out more traditional terrain. The two Schumann pieces -- the Konzertstück for four horns and the "Spring" Symphony -- framed Mozart's Concerto in C, K. 503, which was played, also with grace and a dash of clumsiness, by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

A touch of continuity was manifest in the emphasis on the horns. Last week, four members of the horn section, playing natural horns with deliberately approximate-sounding, microtonal pitches, were featured in Julian Anderson's "Imagin'd Corners." They stood at the back of the auditorium before taking up posts at the four corners of the stage. This week, four of the horns stood front and center in the Schumann, a piece that turns up with some regularity on the programs of orchestras that want to show off their horn sections. One can imagine that the horn players had a lot to contend with because of the double duty; unfortunately, last night's performance was less about showing the horns off than showing them up. It was not their finest hour.

In general, Märkl brought a light touch to his Schumann, giving the bombast its due but also keeping a spring in the music's step. But the grace of the evening resided most in the Mozart, which got a clear, expressive, firm reading from Ohlsson, with the conductor and orchestra dancing around him. The opening of the third movement, in particular, took on a lilt and twinkle that was veritably Haydnesque. As for the hint of clumsiness in Ohlsson's playing, it was that the notes in his crisp runs were so assertive as to sometimes take slightly more time than their due; it was perhaps not his fingers but the listener's ear that lagged behind.

This did not detract from an authoritative and delightful performance, nor did the unfortunate collapse of an audience member during the third movement. People seated around her gave an impressive demonstration of silent solidarity, moving quickly to lay her in the aisle and summon medical staff, and happily she was able to stand again, and applaud, by the time the movement was over.

The "Spring" Symphony is a pleasant enough piece, but it suffers from overemphasis: Schumann is so eager to express himself that he has made his point several times over before the music has ended. Märkl strove to find a balance of the light and the robust. He was successful in that the bombast never grew too bombastic, but not entirely successfully, given that the vocal passages often failed to sing out; his agility did not always draw from the orchestra the lyricism that Schumann also needs.

Still, he is a fine conductor, and if he didn't mitigate Schumann's more obsessive side, he plunged in and made it generally fun.

The program repeats this afternoon and tomorrow night.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company