Cellist Truls Mørk has delivered some memorable performances as a featured soloist with symphony orchestras throughout Europe and North America. His interpretations of works by such composers as Dimitri Shostakovich, Antonin Dvorak, and Benjamin Britten have often prompted critics to use the term “electrifying” to describe his talent with the rather unwieldy string instrument. Hailed as a “significant new presence on the music scene, especially in Europe” by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Andrew Druckenbrod, Mørk won his first Grammy Award in 2001 for his recording of a Britten cello concerto.
Mørk was born in 1961 in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city. Although his father was a professional cellist, Mørk’s formal musical training began with the piano, his mother’s instrument, at the age of seven. He failed to develop a passion for it, and his parents began to think that he should try a stringed instrument instead. His father preferred that he study the violin with a certain teacher, but the man had a busy schedule, and so in the interim his father began to teach his son the rudiments of cello. Already eleven years old, Mørk was a latecomer among those who hoped for a professional career, but his enthusiasm was immediate. “I liked the look of the cello because it was big,” he said in an interview with Seattle Post-Intelligencer contributor R. M. Campbell, and noted that “the sound of the instrument was already in my ear.” Some of the first pieces he attempted to play through to finish were ambitious standards—J. S. Bach’s “First Suite” and Johannes Brahms’s “E Minor Sonata”—considering he could barely play a scale correctly with his bow. Still, he was inspired by his father, as he told Campbell. “I knew how they were supposed to sound.… My father had a very lyrical sound and played beautifully. I wanted to play the same way.”
Mørk’s first teacher realized his student’s promise, if not yet talent, as he progressed in ability. The teacher confessed to him that most cello students were diffident, but he was the exception. “I played in an exaggerated style, over the top,” the musician told Campbell. “I had to work to find not just strong colors but those in between.” His father remained noncommittal. “He never really asked me to play for him or pushed me to practice. It was always the other way around,” he told Cincinnati Enquirer journalist Janelle Gelfand. “I had to go to him and ask, please, could he give me a lesson.” He also realized that he was likely destined for solo career at early age, rather than as a member of an orchestra. After auditioning and winning a cello seat in a youth orchestra in Norway, “after one week I was put in the back of the group because I was playing too loud and I didn’t count properly,” he joked with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Druckenbrod.
Mørk studied with Frans Helmerson after 1978. From Helmerson Mørk learned how to interpret different pieces from various eras, as Helmerson instilled in his students an appreciation for how music from different periods was played. Mørk also studied under Russian teacher Natalia Schakowskaya, who once studied under Mstislav Rostropovich, considered the twentieth century’s greatest cellist. In contrast, Schakowskaya was a rigorous, demanding teacher who emphasized technique above all else.
Mørk’s father discouraged him from pursuing a career as a professional musician. As he told Tim Janof for http://Cello.org online, “He used to say, ‘Don’t practice too much. If you do, you will become a musician.’” Nonetheless, Mørk persisted, and entered his first major competition, the Tchaikovsky contest, in Moscow in 1982. No Scandinavian had ever made it as far as the finals, and as he admitted to Gelfand in the Cincinnati Enquirer, he and his fellow Norwegian students were “very unserious” about entering the prestigious event. “I didn’t bring any clothes to play in. We all expected to leave after the first round.” Instead Mørk made it to the final round, borrowed shoes, and became the first Scandinavian in history to win the contest.
The prestige of winning the Tchaikovsky award launched Mørk’s career immediately. Mariss Jansons, music director of the Oslo Philharmonic, became his mentor; the conductor’s eventual affiliation with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra helped launch Mørk’s career in North America as well. Others also served as mentors: Dmitry Sitkovetsky invited the cellist to play at the Korsholm Festival in Sweden though Mørk was still
For the Record…
Born in 1961 in Bergen, Norway; son of a cellist and pianist; married Karin (a dancer); three children. Education: Studied with Frans Helmerson at the Swedish Radio Music School after 1978, and with Natalia Schakowskaya.
Has performed as a featured soloist with the Oslo Philharmonic, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the London Symphony, the City of Birmingham Symphony, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and several other groups; signed to Virgin Classics record label.
Awards: Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, first place in cello, 1982; winner, Cassado Cello Competition, Florence, 1983; winner, Naumberg Competition, 1986; Gramophone Award for Best Chamber Music Recording (with Chantal Juillet and Pascal Rogé) for Ravel, Sonatas for Violin and Piano—1897, 1997; Grammy Award, Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra), for Britten: Cello Suites 1-3, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 304 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10010.
a relative unknown. After Sitkovetsky became director of the International Music Festival in Seattle, Washington, Mørk’s appearances in that city became much-heralded engagements. In the late 1980s the cellist met Paavo Jarvi, member of a well-known Estonian musical family, when Mørk’s wife danced with the Norwegian National Opera and Jarvi was a conductor there. Mørk has recorded Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Cello Concerto with Jarvi and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and his American debut came under Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during the 1993-94 season.
As Mørk’s international reputation has grown, so has his status in his native country. He founded the International Chamber Music Festival in Stavanger, the first such event of its kind in Norway, and was a featured soloist on the Oslo Philharmonic’s 1994 American tour. His performances continue to win acclaim. After attending a 1997 event in Seattle under conductor Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Campbell lauded his interpretation of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, a work written originally for Rostropovich. “To say he is technically adept is an understatement,” Campbell asserted. “Nothing appears difficult, yet that is not the point. His huge technical resources are simply a given. It is his understanding of the music that is so thoroughly remarkable, and his ability to convey it.” That evening, MØrk was given an immediate standing ovation and was forced to make several curtain calls, as the Seattle Times noted. Calling the applause “one of the warmest ovations accorded a Seattle Symphony soloist in two decades,” the Seattle Times critic commended Mørk’s prowess in performing the Shostakovich concerto, describing it as “a marathon [piece], a work of searing intensity that requires every element in a cellist’s technical and interpretive arsenal.”
In 2001 Mørk performed the Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, prompting Dallas Morning News critic Olin Chism to compare the Norwegian with Rostropovich. MØrk’s “intensely passionate performance was reminiscent of the work of” the much-feted Russian master, noted the critic, adding that “Mørk is a deep artist who seems to have this work in his bones.” Other performances have also earned enthusiastic responses from critics. Delivering Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor to another Seattle audience in 1999, Mork prompted Seattle Times writer Ellen A. Kim to deem it “a mesmerizing performance.… His skill with complicated arpeggios and barely there high notes were equally impressive; most fascinating was how Mørk eked out the tiny-yet-complete sounds from his instrument.” A year later he played the same concerto in Cincinnati. As Cincinnati Post critic Cindy Starr explained, the cellist “made every note meaningful, and played with such a soulful look on his face … that he occasionally seemed on the verge of tears.”
In Cello.org, Mørk explained his ability to draw such emotion from his bow and strings. “I think of the cello as basically a singing instrument,” he told Janof. “The cello is the instrument that mimics the human voice most closely, having the same register and the same melodic qualities. We try to make it sound virtuosic but we can’t because it’s so large.” He also noted that when he performs onstage, “I feel like I am singing to the audience through my cello, instead of using my voice. My throat tightens and loosens as if I am singing, though the notes come out of the cello. I also notice a connection between the music and my breathing. I try to breathe with the phrases, so I usually take a breath before starting a new phrase.”
Mørk’s recordings include works from the so-called Russian School of cello concertos, which he prefers. It requires a certain intensity, as he told Janof. “It is a very warm style, which is partly the result of how they put more weight into the instrument and dig deeper into the instrument with their bow.” Russian Cello Sonatas, recorded with pianist Lars Vogt, features cello standards written by Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokokiev. With Jean-Yves Thibaudet he recorded both Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata and the Mi-askovsky Cello Sonata. American Record Guide critic David W. Moore called the latter piece “a touching and beautiful work” and asserted that Mørk and Thibaudet “play this material with great clarity; though there have been showier, more dramatic readings, these are thoroughly satisfying and have more intensity and incisive phrasing than some flashier versions. Mørk continues to add to his reputation as one of the most musical cellists around.”
In 2001 Virgin Classics released Aaron Jay Kernis: Colored Field, which Mørk performed with the Minnesota Orchestra. Kernis’s piece, a memoriam to those who died in the Holocaust, was originally written as a concerto for English horn, but Kernis wrote a cello part for Mørk. San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman asserted that “the results are as gripping as the original.… Mørk’s playing is passionate and evocative.” Mørk’s repertoire has grown to include pieces that British composer Benjamin Britten wrote for Ros-tropovich between 1964 and 1971. Britten: Cello Suites Nos. 1-3, released in 2001, gave him his first Grammy Award.
“Mørk’s performances resonate with a real sense of occasion,” wrote London Times critic Hilary Finch, “their ‘canto’ movements are bel canto indeed, impassioned yet austere; their parody marches dark and menacing; their pizzicato more provocative than playful; and their dizzy moto perpetuos a wild fantasy of tone and texture.” As recognition for the international prestige Mørk enjoys, Norway’s SR-Bank purchased a rare 1723 cello made in Venice by Domenico Montag-nana. The gift accompanies Mørk around the world on the concert and recording dates that keep him away from his wife and three young children for as much as 250 days a year. His career, however, is an indispensable part of his life, as he told the Seattle Times. “For me, music is something so important that it is difficult to imagine life without it,” Mørk noted. “It is necessary to me. It takes so much of my imagination and my concentration. It expresses so much emotion that I could not express any other way.”
Mozart: Quartet in F major, Simax, 1987.
Brahms: The Two Cello Sonatas, Simax, 1988.
(With Jean-Yves Thibaudet) Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata/Miaskovsky: Cello Sonata, Virgin Classics, 1996.
(With Lars Vogt) Cello Sonatas/Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Virgin Classics, 1997.
Ravel, Sonatas for Violin and Piano—1897, Decca, 1997.
Sinfonia concertante: op. 125/Prokofiev; Cello Concerto, op. 66/Miaskovsky, Virgin Classics, 1998.
Debussy/Prokokiev/Ravel, EMI, 2000.
Aaron Jay Kernis: Colored Field; Air; Musica Celestis, Minnesota Orchestra; Eiji Cue, conductor, Virgin Classics, 2001.
Britten: Cello Suites A/os. 1-3, Virgin Classics, 2001.
Dvorák: Cello Concerto/Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations, Virgin Classics, 2001.
American Record Guide, January-February 1997, p. 201;March-April 1998, p. 245; May 2000, p. 94.
Cincinnati Enquirer, April 27, 2000.
Cincinnati Post, April 29, 2000, p. D8.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), March 4, 2000, p. F8.
Dallas Morning News, December 7, 2001, p. A43.
Guardian (London, England), March 2, 2001, p. 22.
Independent (London, England), March 23, 2000, p. 12.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 25, 2000.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2001, p. 56.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 12, 1997, p. C7; March 19, 1997, p. C12; February 16, 2002, p. E4.
Seattle Times, March 16, 1997 p. M4; March 18, 1997, p. E4; April 15, 1999, p. G29; April 16, 1999, p. C5; February 15, 2002, p. H28.
Times (London, England), February 27, 2001, p. 12.
“Conversation with Truls Mørk,” Cello.org, http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/mork.htm (April 14, 2002).