Review: OSO opens season with stellar performance by young horn player

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.

The French horn is a notoriously finicky, treacherous instrument. Sure, orchestras all over the world are proud of their horn players — the Berlin Philharmonic’s personable fourth horn Sarah Willis even has a popular Youtube channel. But true solo virtuosos are so rare they can be essentialized to just two names in the last 75 years: the English prodigy Dennis Brain, who died tragically young in 1957 and the versatile German master Hermann Baumann, now in his 80s. But Alain Trudel and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra may have found the next great horn ambassador in the shape of a gifted 20-year-old player named Martin Mangrum.

Mangrum was announced as the winner of the OSO’s inaugural Sénécal-Mozart Prize two weeks ago. The Montrealer studies at the prestigious Colburn School in Los Angeles, literally across the street from Gehry’s undulating Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Martin Mangrum.

On Monday night at the Shenkman Arts Centre, as part of his award, Mangrum played Mozart’s Second Horn Concerto with Trudel at the podium. His playing was enormously impressive: a delicate but elegant tone, pure intonation, nimble articulation and trills, beautiful legato and innately expressive phrasing. The Rondo sounded especially gallant, with evocative hunting horn echoes and a high-stepping, prancing rhythm. Mangrum also displayed preternatural poise, unperturbed by the occasional crack or burble, his demeanour relaxed, open, and warmly communicative.  

For a critic, there are few things more exciting than recognizing the potential for a brilliant career in a talented young musician  Props to the OSO — and the prize’s patron, Nicole Senécal — for rewarding something other than the usual piano, violin or voice. The orchestra hasn’t yet announced next year’s instrument; here’s hoping it will be equally unexpected (bassoon, anyone?)

The rest of the evening’s program was dedicated to more Mozart. For this repertoire, Trudel led a slimmed-down OSO — around 30 players instead of the usual 80 plus. The smaller size gave the performance more of a chamber orchestra feel, but it also exposed some weaknesses, especially the tuning in the first and second violins, who were constantly under pitch. The Marriage of Figaro Overture was vivacious but sloppy. The Jupiter Symphony No. 41 was played in a similar vein, jubilant in spirit, inconsistently executed.

Among a collection of Mozart opera arias performed by University of Ottawa voice students, Jeanine Williams’ self-assured Come Scoglio stood out.

This is the OSO’s first season playing concerts at the Shenkman. The acoustics are on the dry side, but I’ve heard worse. It’s a smart move for many reasons. Yes it’s a smaller hall to fill, with more affordable tickets, and cheaper to rent. But it also brings quality symphonic programming to the underserved east-end population. If distance from downtown is a barrier to access for some residents, the OSO seems to have found a viable alternative.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.