From the Core of the Earth: National Symphony Orchestra, June 12, 2010

Guest conductor Kristjan Järvi showed some huge strengths and some glaring weaknesses in his leadership of the National Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. His sensitive shaping of phrases and skill at eliciting sonorities from the orchestra made the first part of the program passionate, intriguing, and occasionally brilliant, but his extremely imprecise approach to rhythm made a hash of two jazzy works after intermission.

Järvi had help with the rhythms in the meatiest piece on the program, the Symphony no. 4 (“Magma”) of his Estonian countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür, written for solo percussionist and orchestra. Judging on his bio and his fourth symphony, Tüür seems a bit like Baltimore’s own Christopher Rouse. Both love rock as well as classical — Tüür even led his own Estonian prog-rock group in the “chamber rock” vein — and show it in their orchestral work. (Tüür also shows it by having the largest possible number of rockin’ umlauts in his name.) The Fourth, though shot through with icy sonorities that we associate with Tüür’s part of the world, could fit without too much trouble into Rouse’s oeuvre, with rock rhythms sparring with essentially tonal harmonies in inventive, string-heavy orchestral scoring that occasionally breaks into unapologetic lyricism. (Tüür breaks into it a little less often than Rouse does.)

“Magma” was written for and dedicated to percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, also the dedicatee of Rouse’s “Der gerettete Alberich” (I will stop belaboring this now), and Järvi and the NSO were lucky to secure her services to perform the work for the series of three concerts that ended Saturday. Sometimes Glennie attacked her instruments a little harder than necessary, but “Magma” requires her to play continuously for over a half-hour, and she never missed a beat. (The guns she was showing in her one-armed black top suggested one source of her stamina.)

The “Magma” erupted immediately in the form of a series of loud chords that forced their way from low rumbles to high crashes in the orchestra, spiked by cold, glimmering sounds from the first of three batteries of percussion among which Glennie circulated, especially from the vibraphone. The orchestra then began exploring a long series of slow, grinding harmonic modulations, with Glennie’s vibraphone probing the orchestra’s sound, sometimes suggesting a freeze, sometimes starting to crumble a series of notes. The effect, as this suggests, was pretty cool, but there is only so much of this one can take before the sheer imperturbability of the process stops being impressive and starts feeling stagnant. A lack of dynamic variation, here and elsewhere, also posed a problem; the quieter moments held the most drama here, as there was a general sense of unrelenting medium-loudness.

The music eventually segued into a cadenza for Glennie and a rock drum kit, and soon it became apparent that “Magma” has the standard four symphonic movements hiding it its continuous span. Sure enough, a slow, lyrical section succeeded Glennie’s sparky, shifty solo spot, highlighted by the strings spinning out a melody that Järvi shaped into generous, impassioned paragraphs and that Glennie expertly accented and occasionally undermined with detailed, precise conga playing. The fourth section gathered steam (ha-ha) in an impressivly implacable but also repetitive way, so that the climax felt only marginally more thundering than what had come before. Still, I’d love to hear more of Tüür’s work, and kudos are due to the NSO for putting it on and to the orchestra, Järvi, and Glennie for stepping right up to its challenges.

The other works on the program had more immediate appeal for the amateur listener, at least on paper. Some sloppy playing marred Edward Grieg’s Lyric Suite, especially the “Nocturne,” in which Järvi and the NSO blurred the fast running melody more often than not. But more memorable than those missteps was Järvi’s wonderful feel for phrasing Grieg’s melodies — the “Shepherd’s Boy” in particular had intense swells of strings punctuating well-formed melodic sentences in a non-histrionic but nonetheless riveting manner — and the memorable sonorities that came from the NSO. In particular, the wonderfully balanced, hushed sound of the bassoons blending with the low strings in the “Norwegian Rustic March” evoked wet leaves on an autumn evening, a sound that felt almost tangible in its intensity.

The big bass-drum blowout in “Bell-Ringing,” the finale of the Lyric Suite, foreshadowed the two incredibly loud pieces that came after intermission, the Overture and Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide and Duke Ellington’s “Harlem.” The Candide Overture came in the original orchestral garb in which it has become a favorite concert piece, and Järvi and the NSO could not deliver it precisely enough to make it fizz. This problem continued in Charlie Harmon’s suite from the opera(-ish thing), where rhythmic precision left the building; Bernstein became generically genial rather than wittily pointed.

Even worse things happened in “Harlem,” heard in a transcription from big band to full orchestra by Luther Henderson (with edits from John Mauceri). Here the NSO had the benefit of its own rock-solid rhythm section to help it stay on rhythm, but Järvi and the rest of the orchestra seemed unable to use this helper. The final section of “Harlem” was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, a stage full of musicians playing just that bit out of time with each other, a sludgy soup topped by blown-out brass and served messy. Listening to it was actively unpleasant, and a far cry from the Grieg and Tüür that made this concert worthwhile.


Charles T. Downey reviewed Thursday’s performance of this program for the Post. In the comments thread on the link to his review on The Classical Beat, an interesting discussion has broken out about whether the review should have discussed an especially appreciative audience reaction to the Ellington on Friday night, followed by what was apparently a well-received encore.

The audience appeared to be just as happy with the Ellington on Saturday, which is sad, because if you listen to Ellington’s own recordings of his compositions you hear precision and sensitivity to tone and color that were not present in Saturday’s performance. My guess is that any hint of jazz gets folks excited, although why this one in particular worked I don’t know. For my part, I didn’t stay for whatever encore ensued after “Harlem,” because I didn’t want to hear any more from the NSO at that point.


I have a lot of respect for Järvi and Glennie as artists, which is why I am about to make fun of their artistic bios in the Playbill program, because said bios need to be edited to remove some laughable sentences.

Kristjan Järvi’s name has become synonymous with artistic and cultural diversity

That’s true! Just the other day I heard the following conversation:

Hipster 1: I couldn’t imagine living in the suburbs — no Kristjan Järvi at all.
Hipster 2: So true. The city is where all the Kristjan Järvi is.

Evelyn’s 12th solo CD, Shadow Behind the Iron Sun, was based on a radical improvisational concept and has once again questioned people’s expectations.

Once again? Is her 12th CD a rerelease of an earlier CD? And the CD itself is questioning my expectations? That’s some interactive content!

Outside of actual performance, the Evelyn Glennie brand is constantly exploring other areas of creativity.

Wait a minute — the Glennie brand? You’re Oprah now? Who’s exploring these areas besides Evelyn Glennie? But I’m eager to hear about these new areas — tell me more!

…to regularly appearing on television across the world, including the Late Show with David Letterman…

Wow! It sure does take a lot of creativity to play one’s instrument on TV!

After 20 years in the music business she had begun teaching privately, which allows her to explore the art of teaching

So teaching allows you to explore the art of teaching? Well, if you give me some of that brand money, I’d be happy to explore the art of editing your bio.

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One Comment on “From the Core of the Earth: National Symphony Orchestra, June 12, 2010”

  1. symphonyguy Says:

    I think there should be more snark in classical music reviews.

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