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Monday, October 31, 2011

Concert Review: Norway, the Hard Way

The Grieg Festival Orchestra plays...Grieg.
Conductor Per Brevig. Photo by Randy Wilson © Grieg Festival Orchestra.
On Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall, Per Brevig led his Grieg Festival Orchestra through a program commemorating the victims of the July bombings and shootings in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. Mr. Brevig, a former trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, displayed a commitment to the music of his homeland, programming a modern piece by composer Aarne Nordheim alongside the more familiar music of Grieg.

The performance opened with a Funeral March, written by Grieg in memory of his friend the composer Richard Nordraak. This was an orchestral transcription of the march, which Grieg originally wrote as a piano work. It was later played at Grieg's own funeral. With low strings and dark, growling brass, this was a somber performance, skilfully led.

It was followed by Grieg's lone Symphony, an early work that the composer had withdrawn, saying that there was too much of Schumann in its pages. Grieg may have been right in that assessment, but Mr. Brevig and his orchestra made a persuasive case for this neglected piece. The sprightly playing in the oboes and rhythmic snap in the strings gave the music an authentic-sounding  flair. The well-balanced orchestra sounded resonant in the crisp acoustic of Alice Tully Hall.

The second half of the program started with the composition by Mr. Nordheim. Tenebrae (the title means "Darkness") is a roving four-movement quasi-concerto for solo cello and orchestra. Darrett Atkins played the solo part with force, fraying the horse-hair off his bow. He stared fiercely at the sheet music as he played, whipping through the scraped tone-rows and occasional melodies required by this demanding piece.

Although the work had some memorable sections, there were points where the orchestral tuttis were played at such a volume that it was impossible to hear. Following another barrage of tone-clusters, Mr. Nordheim's quiet, almost monotone ending brought welcome relief and a soothing sonic balm.

Further relief was provided by the concert's closer, Grieg's evergreen Piano Concerto. The declarative opening bars brought smiles of recognition to the audience. Anne-Marie McDermott played the solo part with a forceful energy, working closely with Mr. Brevig over the four movements. 

In the second movement, Mr. Brevig's enthusiastic conducting was a little too forceful. At one point, his baton sprang forth from his hand and went flying into the first row of seats. A thoughtful audience member placed the little white stick neatly on the stage, and the concert continued uninterrupted.

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