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Czech conductor Hrusa makes strong NSO debut

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; C02

With three big pieces, a young conductor made an ambitious debut at the National Symphony Orchestra.

Jakob Hrusa, not yet 30, led a program Thursday night that was heavy on the music of his native Czech Republic: the Dvorak cello concerto and Janacek's "Taras Bulba" framed Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony, his Eighth. It was a big program, and it was offered, in a way, back to front: plunging right into the thick of things with the concerto on the first half, and concluding with the brass and drums, the swagger and rich colors of the Janacek at the end.

After the start of its honeymoon with Christoph Eschenbach last week, the orchestra sounded a little pale -- and perhaps it wasn't all Hrusa's fault that he couldn't entirely wake it up.

Hrusa is an eminently sensitive conductor, the kind of musician who delves into the score and emerges with handfuls of subtleties, shadings and nuance. That can yield fine musicmaking, but it isn't always dramatic. At its best, it resulted in radiant sound -- the Schubert was tender, with fine work from the oboe and clarinet in the second movement. But it was also long-winded; the first movement of the Schubert was both lovely and seemed to last for a long time.

"Taras Bulba" occasions a certain amount of critical head-shaking over its exalted portrayal of a monstrous figure -- it's based on a novella by Nikolai Gogol about a violent 16th-century Cossack leader. Yet very little was monstrous in either Janacek's music or Hrusa's capable, slightly phlegmatic guidance of it -- apart perhaps from the bite of percussion and timpani that mark the deaths that conclude the work's first two movements. (The first to die is Bulba's son, killed by his father for loving the daughter of the enemy general -- not a subject you'd think of as invested with nobility.)

It's a fine showpiece for the orchestra, but it also served as a reminder that this ensemble can get scattered without a very firm hand; slightly sloppy entrances took some of the edge off the drama.

Another debut was that of Daniel Müller-Schott, a German cellist with a big name in Europe and a Goffriller cello from which he drew a slightly tangy tone, now thin and a little biting, now meltingly lyrical. His is not a big Romantic sound, but he can certainly make the instrument sing gorgeously when called on -- as in the song of the second movement, a tribute to Dvorak's sister-in-law and first great love. Hrusa, for the most part, kept the orchestra from overpowering him. It was a good, workmanlike performance.

Opening the evening with the concerto might have been something of a liability in that it emphasized Hrusa's leisurely pacing from the start, without giving orchestra or listeners time to warm up; the horns had a particularly unfortunate moment at the start of the third movement.

The program repeats Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 1:30.

The Classical Beat: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra announces a new round of cutbacks to musicians' salaries. Go to http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/ for the full story.

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