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Orpheus at Carnegie

Season 35

23 October: Brahms and Schoenberg, with pianist Yefim Bronfman.

8 December: Bach, Schumann, and Theofanides, with pianist Christian Zacharias.

2 February: Mozart and Tchaikovsky, with violinist Nikolaj Znaider.

10 May: Respighi, Wuorinen, and Vivaldi, with Sarah Chang.

23 October 2007: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra began its new season at Carnegie Hall with a program the first half of which reminded me of a Broadway show from the long-ago days when Jude Law was an almost unknown actor, certainly not as famous as his counterpart in the revival of Jean Cocteau's Indiscretions (orginally Les enfants terribles), Cynthia Nixon. The real stars of the show were Kathleen Turner and Eileen Atkins. I remember a lot of Ms Atkins, slinking around in skimpy negligees. It was all somewhat improbable.

Mr Law, however, more improbably than most, began the second act dressed in a pair of ankle socks. That was his only gift from the goddess of garments. He rose out of a hip bath, otherwise quite naked, at a time when such full disclosure was still somewhat uncommon on Broadway. I forgot to tell you this, but I was attending a Wednesday matinee - the only man in the balcony. One woman, seated behind me, whispered loudly to a friend, "I don't know why he bothers reciting his lines; nobody's paying the least attention to what he's saying." The only word for what Mr Law was doing is swinging.

All right, it wasn't quite like that at Carnegie Hall last Tuesday. But one had a terrible time paying attention to the first half of the program, partly because of the promise - or threat - of what was to come in the second half, and partly because the program itself bordered on the lunatic. The big deal, of course, was going to be Brahms's D-Minor Piano Concerto, with virtuoso Yefim Bronfman on the bench. No concerto could be more at home at Carnegie Hall, but tonight it was going to have to make its way without the help of a conductor, and members of the audience could be forgiven the kind of tingling anticipation that bravura stunts inspire. That a big part of pulling off the stunt of playing Brahms's vastly romantic, thundering and moody magnum opus would be keeping it from sounding like a stunt at all only added to the excitement.

I should have begun the concert with, perhaps, Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, which has been out of circulation for so long that it's almost fresh enough for Orpheus to tackle. And I expect that they'd have given it a very fresh reading, too. Then, I'd have slotted a late Haydn Symphony, not the Miracle or the Surprise, perhaps, but maybe the Drum Roll or the Ninety-Eighth. So much for my two cents, which are offered as suggestions of music that might have held the audience's attention - or, at any rate, mine.

Instead, we began with three encores, the first, third, and tenth of Brahms's orchestrated Hungarian Dances. These lovely pieces were beautifully played, and the audience seemed very pleased, but putting them at the head of the program simply underlined their relative weightlessness. In fact, they sounded almost trivial. That is what encores are: delightful morsels offered as treats after a demanding workout for the audience. We had had no workout - yet.

That came next, in the form of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony NΊ 1, Op 9. This intricately-scored study of dementia reminded me of the many times that I have walked into a room only to find that I've entirely forgotten why I'm there. I do not for a moment accuse Schoenberg of incompetence. He not only knew what he was doing but, in the venerable tradition of modernism, he anticipated a major social upheaval to come later in the Twentieth Century, to whit, the explosive incidence of Alzheimer's Disease. The Symphony is studded with several passages of slow, pensive, and beautifully-written music, but for the most part it scampers about in willful delirium, violating with the relish of a Hun the most sacred idea of sonata form, lucid progression from here to there. Nor does the Symphony possess the creepy, somewhat camp charm of Pierrot Lunaire. It is just creepy. The mind is a terrible thing to waste: if you doubt me, listen to this music.

After the interval, we could finally please just have the Brahms now.

From the start, Mr Bronfman and Orpheus gave us a richly satisfying reading of this immensely ripe chestnut. But one could not simply sit back and enjoy the show. No: one must put one's finger on what distinguished this performance from what one was used to, used as one was to the leadership of those champions of the Will to Power - conductors. Actually, today's young conductors go to great lengths to dissociate themselves from the grandiose egotism of their predecessors; where the old dinosaurs commanded, the young people suggest and implore. Nevertheless, the conductor's baton has a certain unifying effect: it keeps the band together. So that is what one listened for at first. Orpheus, however, made a complete red herring out of this issue. It Stayed Together. There was nothing like the awkwardly fascinating - or fascinatingly awkward - bar-long moment. last spring, when the strings came apart in the Scherzo of Schumann's Second. (The lapse was patched before most listeners noticed it.) Tonight, everything flowed as smoothly and imperturbably as is customary at Brahms's fount of German Classicism. What one was listening for - the faint blur of uncoordinated disorder that harpies at the Times have been known to complain of - just wasn't there. One scratched one's head.

For something clearly wasn't "right."

Expecting as one did the possibility of a train wreck ("Orpheus Shattered in Hubristic Assault on Big-Boy Repertoire"), one was actually slightly annoyed with the charm of the performance, an annoyance that curdled charm into tedium. Where was the excitement? Not the normal excitement that Orpheus so routinely but unflaggingly produces - the excitement of hearing things as if for the first time. One was looking for the far more vulgar, far less aesthetic excitement of Big Mistakes. There weren't any. And there weren't going to be any: that became clear right away. The members of Orpheus knew what they were doing, and Mr Bronfman knew what they were doing, too.

A more intelligent listener would have seized upon this recognition - that Mr Bronfman knew, and cared about, what his colleagues were doing - as the secret to what made this performance unusual long before one did, which was not until the third movement. One forgets just when it happened, but one recalls that it definitely involved winds and brass. A blend of wind and brass sound poured forth from beyond the piano. The notes were perfectly executed, but they were a little louder, a little more insistent, than they would have been under the baton of a Bernstein or a Davis. That is, one noticed all of a sudden that such passages were always, and not just occasionally - not just for effect, but always - louder. One was reminded of a remark of Mr Bronfman's, printed in the program: "I want to be part of the group, almost as if I were playing the Brahms Piano Quintet, with the same type of spirit." That is exactly what was going on, one saw at last. The chamber orchestra was giving a chamber performance of a major orchestral masterpiece.

What's the difference? By now, one was not quite so thick-headed. The difference is the focus that a typical conductor will fix upon the concert soloist. What the conductor does to achieve this focus is principally a matter of melding the various orchestral voices into an indissoluble whole, a suggestion of of instrumental variety without the reality. Here we have "the soloist," there we have "the orchestra." Orpheus, far from being shattered, shattered that duality. The result was a great deal more music than one was used to, leaving one with a slight case of Josephine dyspepsia: too many notes. There was nothing rank or weedy about the presentation of each and every one of Brahms's ideas, but it made for a new sound, and I'd like to hear more of it before deciding if, all in all, it is a good sound. If I could not make this determination upon a first exposure, I must plead my own base weakness of character: I let far too much of the concerto go by as if P T Barnum had hired the hall.

Mr Bronfman may have played with all the collegiality of the most self-effacing chamber pianist, but he had the good sense to demonstrate a showman's virtuosity that was always impressive. Under normal circumstances, it would have been dazzling; Mr Bronfman's playing is all that we would have noticed. There was perhaps a faint discord between his pyrotechnics and the orchestra's steadily glowing illumination - but these are early days in the post-conductor era. In Indiscretions, Jude Law eventually put some clothes on, and the spectacle was over. Nothing like that happened at Carnegie last Tuesday.  


8 December 2007: In October, I had to puzzle over a performance of Brahms's monumental First Piano Concerto that was special because there was, as always, chez Orpheus, no conductor. What made it different? I ventured what now seems a somewhat pallid explanation attributing the novelty to more insistent instrumental voices. Maybe what was really remarkable about the performance is that there was no difference — that that's how unnecessary the conductor was. Whatever. The other night, tackling an even more popular chestnut from the concerto literature, Orpheus swept all uncertainties aside and, together with pianist Christian Zacharias, reinvented Robert Schumann's contribution to the catalogue, polishing up its beautiful craziness.

The program was an intersection of two axes, with two works by Schumann and two entries in the ongoing New Brandenburgs Project. Schumann's symphonic works are turning out to be extremely congenial for Orpheus, and I look forward to hearing the three symphonies that the orchestra has yet to perform as well as the concert overtures, "Manfred" and "Genoveva." What's most interesting is Orpheus's knack for making virtues of the very qualities that critics have deplored. If Schumann does not always seem to know what he is doing in larger forms, Orpheus knows: as a chamber ensemble, it is not only comfortable with but stimulated by Schumann's irregularities of tempo and orchestration.

Despite its late opus number, Schumann's Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, Op 52 is an early work, a pleasant torso with the not inconsiderable heft (and delight) of Tchaikovsky's dance movements. Schumann's statements are bold and confident, but his grasp of sonata form is rudimentary, and this severely limits the span, and, ultimately, the interest of the movements. (Writing in the free-form rhapsody of the Piano Concerto doesn't seem to have occurred to him, either.) Between the Scherzo and the Finale, the orchestra played an interpolation by the American composer, Paul Chihara, called "Childhood Dreams." This reverie on themes from Schumann's Kinderszenen does not sound like Schumann, but it does not sound uncongenial to Schumann, either, and it evokes the emotions as well as any slow movement from Beethoven on. I could only imagine, though, the outcry that would have been sparked by such an addition back in the days when I was young. Someone would have been sure to dismiss it as "fascist" - and would have been applauded for doing so.

The concert began with one of Bach's most popular orchestral works, the Third Brandenburg Concerto. This short and lively pair of allegros (separated by a chord or two of adagio) shows how inspired Bach was by Venetian music — especially Vivaldi's — and yet how un-Venetian he remained. The Third is — like the Sixth — a densely canonical composition for strings, and Bach is far more diligent about working out his counterpoint than any contemporary Venetian would have been (indeed, Bach was somewhat old-fashioned even in his prime). Unfortunately, the tempo at which violinist Renιe Jolles led the ensemble rendered the the thicker textures muddy and rushed. The result was exciting but not very pretty, and I don't think I've ever heard the Orpheus players take such a beating from a warhorse. All was forgiven when Christopher Theofanidis's New Brandenburg Commission, Muse, cleared the air in the second half. Obviously inspired by the Bach, this extremely agreeable chamber concerto brimmed, however improbably, with the sunny euphoria of English music for strings by Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

From the first skidding notes, Schumann's Piano Concerto was brightly lighted by the piano's clarion sound. So assertive was its tone that one might have suspected amplification had not the sound so squarely issued from the instrument itself. Floods of beautiful romantic ardor poured forth like water from an inexhaustible spring, and no matter how loudly the orchestra thundered it could always be heard. Mr Zacharias played like a magician — but then so did Orpheus. Everyone onstage seemed to burn with Schumann's idiosyncratic enthusiasm, which as a result seemed the most natural thing in the world. Although no longer young when he wrote it, Schumann infused his concerto with an ardent but cheerful youthfulness that the performers made thrillingly apparent. Even that tedious little development-like fugato in the third movement was welcome, because it heralded the endlessly joyous dismissal of Schumann's coda-like finale. As is true of all first-class Orpheus performances, the familiar music sounded completely new.


2 February 2008: Saturday night's Orpheus concert at Carnegie Hall was performed in honor of lawyer Richard Prins and his firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The announcement praised Skadden, Arps's pro bono contributions to non-profit organizations and also mentioned that "Mr Prins and his many colleagues have advised Orpheus in a large number of matters critical to the future of the organization." In other words, I expect that Orpheus pays for its legal advice these days — if at a special rate. I've never seen such an announcement before, and I wondered if it had anything to do with the wonderfully old-timey program.

Old-timey for Orpheus, that is. Taking a break from its march into the big-boy repertoire, which I hope is costing at least some fledgling conductors their sleep, the ensemble offered the sort of evening that (one imagines; one wasn't here) characterized its early years, when playing anything larger than Mendelssohn's Octet without a conductor was remarkable. There was also the bon-bon aspect: everything on the bill was a treat. Mr Prins was honored without the help of any explanatory talks dissecting world premieres. Given the venue, moreover, and a certain Russian composer's personal connection therewith, the program was downright canonical.

In short: Mozart and Tchaikovsky on either side of the interval. First, the Serenade in c, K. 388. This work is the finale, if not the climax, of Mozart's writing for wind ensembles. Scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, the Serenade is indisputably meant to be chamber music, as that concept was dawning in Mozart's youth; it wasn't just for the entertainment of nobs and nancies. Mozart liked it so much, in fact, that he re-wrote it for string quintet. An interesting catch, that: for if the work is almost always played in its original form, that's because, while there are no further comments from Mozart in this vein for winds, there are the four astonishing string quintets from the end of the 1780s, which among them consume all the attention. What's considered very good as a serenade isn't quite good enough, or as good, as a quintet.

Because the Serenade is the last of its kind (and therefore, Mozart's being Mozart, the best), I've never noted that it was written long before Mozart became entirely comfortable with the clarinet. For an idea of what this work, which gives an unabashedly starring role to the first oboe, would have sounded like had Mozart come it later, one can only turn to Cosμ fan tutte, which is as different in its orchestration as it is in its morals from everything else that Mozart wrote.

The "Turkish" Violin Concerto, No. 5 in A, K. 219, is, although even earlier, the last of its kind as well. It is probably the most-often played, and arguable "the best," although I prefer the suave finish of the Fourth. Our violinist, the Danish Nikolaj Znaider, played the work just about perfectly, which is to say, like no one else — although his sweet and silky tone might have reminded listeners of Gil Shaham. I don't think I'd ever noticed how high the solo part is pitched — until Mr Znaider showed off his darker, lower tones with a purpose-built cadenza.

I regard Mozart's violin concertos as truly difficult things to play, not because they're technically demanding (although I'm sure that they are that) but because their sheen is almost too intense, growing more glittery as Mozart piles them up, which he did in response to his father's "request." The first two concertos are soft and ever so slightly naive, but the Fourth reminds me of Mme de Pompadour. By the time Mozart got to the "Turkish," he must have been simmering with resentment. That's, at any rate, how I explain all that col legno cello-bopping in the concluding rondeau. Take that!

The second half of the concert began, amusingly, with an encore, Tchaikovsky's Waltz-Scherzo, Op. 34. Well, that's what it used to be — the sort of piece that a virtuoso tossed off after doing battle with a concerto by Wieniawski or a Szymanowski. Then, for a long time, such trifles were considered vulgar and flashy, or, in other words, too much fun, and nobody played them at all, certainly not with an orchestra. Live long enough, though, and.... Mr Znaider came back on to fiddle away his talents on this delicious and not entirely insubstantial dessert.

The Serenade for Strings, Op 48, comes in Tchaikovsky's catalogue directly before the 1812 Overture, and you might think that no two works could be more sharply different. They share an interesting reference, however, and that is to the music of the Russian church. Ecclesiastical music in Russia has a curious history. After Peter the Great, it was not so much Westernized in style as rewritten to comply with Western ideas of counterpoint. This gives it a grandeur comparable to that of Bach and Handel that nevertheless doesn't sound the least bit baroque. In the Overture, Tchaikovsky quoted a great patriotic hymn. In the Serenade, the allusion is rather to style, and it serves the same purpose as the self-conscious Eighteenth-Century archaism of such works as Dvorak's Serenade for Winds and Grieg's "Holberg" Suite — without sounding, to the Western ear, at all Eighteenth-Century.  

At Carnegie on Saturday, we were given the finest performance of the Serenade that I have ever heard in a concert hall or otherwise. Although, as I say, Orpheus has been deploying unprecedented forces in recent concerts, the numbers on Saturday were daringly chaste. Five first and four second violins, four violas, three cellos and a double bass made a complement of seventeen players, about as few as could possibly fill Carnegie Hall with just the right sonority. Plush in tone but crystal-clear in execution, the Orpheus strings presented the Serenade as the long-stemmed beauty of classical music that it is, balancing perfectly its opulence against its good taste. What Allegri's Miserere is to the Sistine Chapel, Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings was to Carnegie Hall, at least for one night.

10 May 2008: Orpheus closed its 2007-8 Carnegie Hall season with two crowd-pleasers and most of a world premiere. Imagine Charles Wuorinen's frustration — not that we should have been able to see it, had he been at the concert (as perhaps he was, incognito) — when a crisis in contrabassist Donald Palma's family obliged him to bow out. This meant that the first movement (of four) of Mr Wuorinen's Synaxis, written last year for Orpheus (and for Mr Palma) would have to be omitted, presumably because the contrabass solo is too difficult for a last-minute substitute to master. Orpheus found another player to accompany the three other soloists, each of whom dominates a movement without having what one would call a solo, but oboist Robert Ingliss, Clarinettist Alan Kay, and Hornplayer Stewart Rose, all of whom played with the virtuosity that one would expect of Orpheus musicians, betrayed the difficulty of the music in the intensity of their concentration. The music was also, to these ears, rather difficult to listen to. You might imagine, therefore, that I was relieved rather than dismayed to be spared five minutes or so of Mr Wuorinen's austere but anxious Cold War style, but in fact I was disappointed. Having had to listen to most of the new work, I should have preferred to have clocked all of it.

The most honest report that I make of the experience is to tell you whither my mind wandered. Not very far; just to the Upper-West-Side settings of Brian Morton's novels, particularly that of Breakable You, for reasons I won't attempt to fathom. It would be sweet to able to say that I thought of how different concerts would be if Josef Stalin had liked atonal music and, in his amiable way, encouraged composers to crank it out. But I did not, just as he did not: he dismissed it as decadent and bourgeois. This left the atonal style available for Western composers, who were determined above all things to prove that their music was — neither decadent nor bourgeois. Go figure.

The crowd-pleasers were Ottorino Respighi's Gli Uccelli and Antonio Vivaldi's Le Quattro Stagioni — better known as The Birds and The Four Seasons. Accustomed as I am to hearing Orpheus blow the dust off familiar chestnuts, I was nonetheless almost afraid of what the Respighi would sound like. It is so cute! It is so NPR! (Or would be, if NPR hadn't long ago dumped the classics for jazz in forging its signature sounds.) It is, above all things, so well known — possibly as well known as The Four Seasons. O me of little faith! From the very first three-chord blocks, Orpheus' reading was suave and deep, as sharply etched as an Antonioni nocturne and just as Roman. The orchestra dyed this music in modernist hues right down to its Renaissance roots, with a pleasant astringency even in the softer movements ("The Dove" and "The Nightingale"). The performance was free but not relaxed; relaxed, this music tends to sound blowsy. I thought of Ravel, who sounds tacky when musicians let go. If I'd ever bracketed Ravel and Respighi before, I'd forgotten doing so. Gli Uccelli made me sit up straight.

Violinist Sarah Chang, who recorded The Four Seasons with Orpheus last fall, took the latest fashions in solo playing to show how much like jazz chamber music has come to look in our time. Not so very long ago, soloists (playing any instrument) stood to one side of the orchestra, interacting with it in no way that couldn't be heard. They might has well have stood in insulated sound booths. No more. Ms Chang played — it would be misleading to say that she "stood" — amidst the fiddlers, engaging quite physically with violinist Richard Rood or with cellist Melissa Meell during the music's frequent duets, and using her body to emphasize the fact that, when she wasn't playing along with the orchestra (in the ritornelli), she was playing against it, in true concerto style, as the wing of an aircraft lifts against the air. As a matter of performing style, Ms Chang and Orpheus did not go quite so far in the direction of raw tone that Fabio Biondi and Europe Galante have taken to refresh the Vivaldi sound, but they were always lively, often aggressive, and never genteel. I had no sense at all of the music's regrettable over-exposure.

What I did have a sense of was the suite's pre-Romantic conception of Nature, as a menace rather than a refuge. Of the four slow movements, the only one that isn't written in the minor mode and inflected with a touch of the eerie is that for Winter, where Vivaldi paints a cozy fireside picture, with raindrops battering the windowpanes. As is often forgotten, The Four Seasons is one of the earliest examples of program music. Not only is each of the four concerti based on a sonnet, but the verses are inscribed alongside the score, almost in the manner of a vocal line. Ms Chang and her colleagues made it clear that they knew Vivaldi's words as well as his notes. (May 2008)

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