National Gallery of Art Orchestra delivers rousing muscial end to Norway festival

By Charles T. Downey
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:30 PM

The National Gallery of Art Orchestra offered a rousing conclusion to the Norway Comes to Washington festival at the museum's annual New Year concert on Sunday evening. Norwegian conductor Bjarte Engeset combined some of the traditional music for such concerts, such as the overture to Strauss's "Die Fledermaus," with less expected pieces by Norwegian composers, from Johan Halvorsen's "Scenes from Norwegian Fairy Tales" to Grieg favorites.

Even with the back-desk violins, the double basses, and the percussion tucked behind and around various columns, the orchestra made the best of the echo-heavy stone acoustic of the West Garden Court. Hearing the encores from the back corner of the space, where there were plenty of empty seats, confirmed that the ensemble sounded crisp and unified even there, although at full-bore the brass and percussion overpowered everything else. This overblown quality was an asset in the pairing of marches by John Philip Sousa and Johannes Hanssen, a former director of the Oslo Military Band who is more or less the American March King's Norwegian counterpart.

These pieces were wryly introduced by Ives's "Country-Band March," a bitonal, polyrhythmic potpourri of band music quotations that Ives later reworked in the middle movement of "Three Places in New England." Two sets of Grieg songs featured soprano Jessica Jones, a puissant voice that shone over the orchestra even in the loudest passages, like the wind-blasted Wagnerian scena "Thanks for Your Advice," and showed a rarefied tone in the softest, such as the nostalgic "Springtime."

Anyone who was left craving his New Year's concert kitsch was satisfied by a full assortment of Strauss encores, including the Neue Pizzicato-Polka, the Blue Danube Waltz, and the Radetzky March, complete with enthusiastic clapping from the audience.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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