There was a pleasant tang of unfamiliarity at this weekend's National Symphony Orchestra performances. Symphony No. 2 (aka "Mysterious Mountain") by Alan Hovhaness, written in 1955, is the first "mountain" symphony by this underplayed American composer of Armenian-Scottish descent. Mountains fascinated Hovhaness: Among his 66 other symphonies are "Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain," "To the Green Mountains," "Mount St. Helens," "Cold Mountain" and "Hymn to Glacier Peak."
Conductor Leonard Slatkin paced the somewhat meandering "Mysterious Mountain" well. Hovhaness's characteristic "spirit murmur" technique, in which individual sections of the orchestra continuously repeat melodic fragments, came through with a new age feel. The second movement's double fugue was a highlight, played with great clarity in the strings and nicely punctuated by the brass.
Norwegian cellist Truls Mork made his NSO debut in Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor. Written in 1919, it was Elgar's last major orchestral work, though he lived another 15 years. There is no pomp and circumstance in this spare post-World War I concerto, which may explain its rather infrequent performance. Mork, a large man who cradles his 1723 Domenico Montagnana instrument with ease, played with reserved beauty and loveliness, if not always full-bodied tone. The performance was more judicious than eloquent at times, but the finale was excellent, with the sense of mourning and resignation before the brief coda that was especially heartfelt.
Antonin Dvorak's bright-hued Symphony No. 6 in D got a full-bodied, rhythmically vital reading, with fine wind playing and even better brass. This is a large work that sprawls a bit, though Slatkin's decision to reduce its scale by omitting the first-movement repeat did not help. This symphony can wander away from an inattentive conductor. Slatkin kept it mostly under control, though the Adagio drifted and was a bit too intense. The Scherzo was delightfully ebullient despite some piccolo wobbles. The finale, whose opening is strongly reminiscent of Brahms's Symphony No. 2 (written three years earlier and also in D major), was a joyful noise indeed -- a rousing conclusion to a concert of works heard less frequently than they deserve.
-- Mark J. Estren