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Orpheus at Carnegie

Season 34

12 October 2006: An all-Mozart program featuring Orpheus and Emanuel Ax playing two piano concertos is about as close to unimprovable as any I can think of. It's true that I've heard slightly lackluster performances of this music in past Orpheus seasons, but I'm inclined to blame myself for that, to assume that I was distracted, or in no mood for such familiar stuff. Because the ensemble that backed up Mr Ax last night was so supple and nuanced that they made the music new. The passage that came next was always spiced with surprise. Just to give a hint: the strings, in the antepenultimate bar of K 453's Andante, had me thinking of Tchaikovsky!

The Piano Concerto No 17 in G, K 453 opened the second half of the concert; the Piano Concerto No 25 in C, K 503, closed the first. Both K 503 and the overture with which the program began, that to Cos fan tutte, share not only a key signature but what I think of as Mozart's "big" C Major style: lots of solid chords and unison jumps to affirm a bright, columnar sound at the start, a sort of natural musical majesty. Then a highly contrasted second subject, which in the case of the concerto reminds me of "La Marseillaise" enough to make me wonder if there isn't some common folk-song root. In this mood, Mozart may write with complexity, but never with mystery. The evening's mystery was contained in K 453. Unfortunately, I had this concerto down to whistle-along-every-note when I was still in my teens, when the rhapsody of the second movement struck me as merely directionless. (I needed a beat as much as any rock fan.) I was too young to hear the forecast of so much nineteenth-century music. Last night, finally, I got it, because the performance made it impossible not to listen closely enough to do so.

As for Mr Ax, his impeccable playing was not a surprise. The surprise was what he did with the Alberti bass line at his first-movement entrance in K 453. I have never heard anything quite like it, and can only describe it in terms of cool, hard alabaster. Assertive translucence? Those broken arpeggios were clearly more important to Mr Ax than they would be to most pianists, and perhaps therein lies the secret of his wizardry. He went on to bring out all the Chopin in the Andante, with plenty of help from Orpheus. I saw what an idiot I'd been to wish that the concertos were played in chronological order, and what a moron not to have let my impression of the earlier one outgrow my adolescent assessment - as an "easy" concerto.

I'm not a fan of overtures without operas, but sometimes they serve a purpose. I have never heard the Cos overture played so brilliantly. What had always seemed concussive about the music now reminded me of shrieking, self-mocking laughter. What a delight it would be to hear Orpheus give the entire opera in concert. It's Mozart's best score.

The final work on the program, the Symphony No 36 in D, K 385 "Haffner" went unheard by us, owing to the hour. It can't have been less than splendid, and I missed hearing it, because like K453, it's a work that I made up my mind about too long ago.


2 December 2006: The second concert of Orpheus's season at Carnegie Hall features pianist Jeremy Denk, a musician who Web log I have followed for some time. At the last Orpheus concert, I buttonholed Mr Denk and introduced myself. So I was hoping to be very impressed by his performance. Good intentions, however, were swept away by the excitement of hearing him play the most substantial of JS Bach's solo concertos, The Concerto in d, BWV 1052. I listen to this work every day, it seems, but on the CD that is parked my carousel, Anton Heiller plays the harpsichord. Mr Denk's fingers spun the twanging glaze of the solo part into beautifully etched phrases that tumbled sometimes with, and sometimes against, the string orchestra. The pianist commanded his instrument with something like the nonchalance of a great jazz pianist. He can't have been unaware of playing in Carnegie Hall, but he appeared to be as comfortable as if he were playing for friends at home. And, again like a jazz musician, he made it all look easy. Jeremy Denk's playing is about the music, not about the difficulty of the music.

One is easily inclined to think of jazz when listening to Bach's keyboard music, and vice versa. Where pleasing listeners is supposed to be important, Bach substitutes an obsession with the possibilities of inversion and variation. To play the music well, a pianist must share some of Bach's curiosity. Mr Denk went so far as to create the illusion of extemporization - quite a feat, considering the familiarity of this chestnut. My mind never wandered for even a moment.

The program opened with the first of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, and closed with the second. I seem to be hearing the Brandenburgs with some frequency these days, but I'm pleased to note that they are no longer baroque bon-bons suitable for aural wallpaper. Last year, I heard all six, played on one-voice-per-part lines. Orpheus's approach may have been more conventional, but the results were completely fresh. The horn players were so brilliant in the first movement of the First Concerto that I joined in the applause that burst out when the movement was over, a no-no that triggered pained and querulous glances from the ancient couple sitting in front of me. Ordinarily, I have to hope that the custom of waiting until a work is completely over to applaud is in good health, but the horn players' bravura was extraordinary. (The little variation for horns and oboes in the fourth movement wasn't quite so perfect.) The soloists in the Second Concerto were members of the orchestra, so of course they were terrific. I wish I knew their names. (I wish that Orpheus would publish a facebook at its Web site.)

Composer Stephen Hartke was on hand to receive the ovation that me the world premiere of his Brandenburg Afternoons - a work written for the same unusual forces that Bach calls for in the First Brandenburg. It may have helped that Melissa Mell, a cellist, indulged us with a bit of music appreciation in advance. I'm not sure how important it is to know that the violas and the cello in the first movement of this engaging piece represent boats bobbing in a marina, but if such tone-painting get people to pay attention, then it can't do any harm. I have no hesitation about describing the work's concluding saraband as darkly romantic. Mr Hartke's music may be tonally modern, but it remembers where it has been and known where it is going. I hope that Orpheus will record Brandenburg Afternoons.


14 April 2007: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra offered a challenging program last Saturday night and, continuing not to disappoint, played it excellently. Beethoven's Violin Concerto is by no means part of the chamber orchestra repertoire, but if you closed your eyes, you wouldn't have known that the orchestra is indeed on the small sides, and that it makes music without a conductor.

I don't ordinarily take notice, in these pages, of other critics' responses, but Bernard Holland summed up his discontent with Orpheus so perfectly that I immediately suspected that what he doesn't like is exactly what I like. Of the curtain-raiser, Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No 10 in b, Mr Holland writes,

When Mendelssohn demanded more notes, rapid execution and precise togetherness, you heard the price that had been paid: admirable coordination at the beginning and end of phrases, but a kind of impressionistic haze in between, as if individual string players each had their own minutely different takes on what togetherness means.

This is what Orpheus is, and we might as well stop complaining about it.

Indeed. I don't consider "a kind of impressionistic haze" a price to pay for lively music, not, at least, on when it's a matter of "minutely different takes." I'm not conscious of hearing what Mr Holland describes; to me, the band is always amazingly together. But there's the togetherness of human beings playing together, and the togetherness of robots responding to a conductor's baton. That is not what I call "togetherness," and, as I get older, I become reluctant even to call it music.

I wondered when I had heard the Mendelssohn before. It wasn't dj vu. Remote neurons sparked with familiarity.

Ingram Marshall, a composer of whom I'd never heard, was commissioned to write something for Orpheus. He sat in on their rehearsals for a while and learned how they master a piece. Orphic Memories, written this in mind, suited Orpheus so well that I should have liked to hear it again, then and there. Mr Marshall began as a minimalist fond of incorporating electronic elements. He decided against the electronics for Orpheus, though: the idea was to show the orchestra off. Cellist Melissa Meell conducted a brief tour of the piece ahead of time, with the orchestra chipping in with brief extracts. The usefulness of this pedagogy cannot be overstated. As I listened to the actual performance, I knew where I was in the work's five-part structure. For one very excited moment, I was reminded of Terry Riley's In C, but for the most part the music was simply beautiful. I do hope that Orpheus records this work.

After the interval, Gil Shaham played Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61. Gil Shaham is thrilling, because plays like a gypsy king. Unlike more assertive virtuosos, who regard every note as equally important, Mr Shaham makes the distinction between the vital parts and the show-off parts, and he plays the latter with a recessive softness that, while it can certainly be heard perfectly well, allows what the orchestra is doing to come to the fore, hardly a bad idea in Beethoven. (I'm mad about a bassoon passage in the development that finally got its due - maybe people heard it for a change.) In the cadenza, however, Mr Shaham was all virtuoso, going so far as to play two themes simultaneously. It was the most interesting performance of the work that I have ever heard, and one of the most beautiful.

One of the greatest treats in concertgoing is the speed with which a madly ovating crowd can drop into pin-drop silence when a soloists indicates that an encore is in the offing. Having played Fritz Kreisler's cadenzas in the Beethoven, Mr Shaham played my very favorite bon-bon, Schn Rosmarin. As he started to play, a low roar of delighted surprise ran through the seats. When it was over, there was delighted laughter. The violinist had made us all feel young again.


5 May 2007: Orpheus closed the 2006-2007 season with nothing less than an historic triumph, by giving a matchless performance of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 61. I can think of no other work in the German canon that is as tonally and rhythmically mercurial. Without the aid of a time-keeper (the conductor's most trivial function), dramatic shifts in tempo and dynamics must be negotiated with the finesse of a great chamber ensemble - which is, of course, what Orpheus is. But I should like to know if any other band has ever attempted Schumann's Second without the aid of a conductor. Not to mention whether they've pulled it off.

Aside from a moment in the Scherzo - in the frenzied conclusion of the first iteration, something wasn't quite right - the musicians of Orpheus built a magnificent portrait of a Romantic masterpiece. I would call it "magnificent" rather than "brilliant," because while the orchestra certainly shone, it did so, as it were, with an equal regard for every aspect of the music. That, I think, is the huge difference that a conductor makes. The conductor is not a collaborator. The conductor's job is to induce musicians to realize his understanding of a score. Without a conductor, the musicians must also understand the score. But it is likely that the committee approach will favor ways of playing the music that allow all the musicians to be heard. The genius of a conductor's Olympian vision is replaced by the orchestra's attentive articulation. Every musician must know the score. The result may be just as nuanced as a conducted performance, but there is a want of shadow that some listeners may find flattening. 

I was not such a listener. I sat, enthralled both by the stunt of tackling the symphony and the glory of its success. From the grave opening, in which trumpets announce the symphony's pervasive rising-fifth motif, to the great drumbeats at the finale, Orpheus traversed Schumann's intricacies with panache. In typical German style, the symphony begins and ends with importance while making room for playfulness and expressiveness within. The question whether Orpheus, with half the strings of a conventional orchestra, would rise to the occasion was settled almost immediately with hammered chord's in the opening movement's introduction; Carnegie Hall's acoustics can't have hurt. The Scherzo, with its ever-accelerating rush, had a runaway quality that was literally terrifying; it was as though the orchestra were devouring notes, not playing them. The Adagio espressivo, which is built on a theme that Schumann lifted from Bach, rippled with poignance and rose to passion. Sweeping through the final movement, Orpheus arrived at the final bar with every hair in place.

Before the interval, we had a work that was about the same age as Schumann's Second, but far better known: Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in e, Op. 64. The Mendelssohn is already somewhat outside what one might have thought to be the Orpheus repertoire, but it is a far more stable piece of music, with each movement having its own steady pulse. The soloist was Janine Jansen, a 29 year-old native of Utrecht. Ms Jansen unites a full-body performing style with great sweetness of tone, and she exploited every opportunity to pronounce the solo passages in her own accent. She played among, rather than in front of, the orchestra, which circled round her. In true Orpheus style, the music was as fresh as you please, sounding as if it were being played for the first time, as if one had never thrilled to the ultra-familiar finale before.

The program began with two short works by the Danish composer, Poul Ruders. The first, Credo, was written to honor the late Sir Yehudi Benjamin. It is set for somber, glistening strings and a clarinet. The performance was marked by deep reverence. Trapeze, written for an Orpheus-like European orchestra, was just the opposite: the full chamber orchestra, at what might be Orpheus's standard strength, jumped into this zoo of a piece, which contains passages of extended, good-natured bedlam. Given what followed, the members of Orpheus got a serious workout.

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