Orchestra of St. John's brings music of Norway closer to home

You might not want to spend a lot of time in Norway in January, but listening to a couple of hours of Norwegian music in a Howard County church sounds inviting. The Orchestra of St. John's vicariously takes you to Norway with "A Winter's Concert – Norwegian Moods," being performed on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4 p.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City.

"Everybody thinks of Norway as a cold place with fjords and icy scenery, but not as one of the most important centers of music," observes Ronald Mutchnik, artistic director of the Orchestra of St. John's.

Although there is one Norwegian composer known to any classical music fan, Edvard Grieg (1843- 1907), even he is widely known for only two compositions: "Peer Gynt" and his Piano Concerto.

Classical music presenters in Howard County have been doing their part to broaden our sense of Grieg's career. The Columbia Pro Cantare featured lesser known pieces by Grieg in a 2007 concert, and this Sunday's concert by the Orchestra of St. John's features Grieg's "Holberg" Suite and "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen."

If Grieg is a household name in at least some Howard County houses, the second Norwegian composer on the program will have little name recognition. A contemporary of Grieg, Johan Severin Svendsen (1840- 1911), will be represented by his Octet for Strings.

There are cultural strings attached to this music. A traditional folk instrument known as the Hardanger fiddle was familiar to such 19th-century Norwegian composers as Grieg, Svendsen, Ole Bull and Johan Halvorsen, who surely heard it playing in their heads as they wrote music for the standard violin.

Grieg and Svendsen are as Norwegian as snow, but the rest of the upcoming program can be thought of as a British invasion of Norway. There is nothing specifically Norwegian about the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" other than its title; moreover, it was composed for guitar and sitar.

And yet, as various symphonic pops programs have proved over the years, "Norwegian Wood" is lushly beautiful when done in a string arrangement. That'll surely be the case when 20 string players do it in the upcoming concert.

Accompanying some of this concert's selections will be members of the Howard County Ballet performing choreography by Kathi Ferguson. This ballet company also accompanied the Orchestra of St. John's around a year ago in its seasonally minded "Viennese New Year's Celebration."

For Ronald Mutchnik, the idea behind such annual January programs is to provide winter-suitable music that does not leave the audience cold.

"It is winter, but much of the music we're playing has a sunny quality to it," he says.

The Orchestra of St. John's performs "A Winter's Concert – Norwegian Moods" Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4 p.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church, 9120 Frederick Road in Ellicott City. Tickets are $25, $12 for students ages 18- 24 with ID, free for those under 18 accompanied by an adult. Call 410-461-7793 or go to http://www.orchestraofstjohns.org.

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