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Season 31

5 December 2003: Because of the snow, the Parquet at Carnegie Hall was almost as empty as it would be for a dress rehearsal, and I was decidedly above median age for a change. Because the snow also held up the evening's soloist, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, the program was reversed - and the evening's offerings played in a much more suitable order. We began with the Overture to the Second Part of Hector Berlioz' L'Enfance du Christ. Scored for strings and winds only, this suggestion - 'representation' would be an overstatement - of the Flight into Egypt is perfect music for Orpheus, and it reminded me, throughout, of last season's Masques et Bergamasques by Gabriel Fauré. It was followed by Carl Maria von Weber's Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 19. Although I've always had a soft spot for Weber's instrumental music, which can be sublimely silly, and which I think had more actual influence on other composers than anything written by Beethoven - Weber is the first unalloyed Romantic - I was unaware of any symphonies in his oeuvre. Fine as the Orpheus performance was, it could not conceal the tentative, almost inchoate nature of this work, the interest of which consisted entirely in its reminiscences of other, greater, composers' work. To say that the latter part of the Andante (the nominal slow movement) sounded like the very mature Haydn's lead-up to a portentous aria by the very young Verdi is not exactly a compliment, and not a very informative remark, either, I suppose, but that's what it was like. The final Presto was more purely Haydnesque, but this movement, like the three that preceded it, was marred by the jarring instrumental juxtapositions - delicate winds echoed by bellowing horns, for example - that make Mozart's Musikalischer Spass a genuine joke. Weber was only twenty when he wrote the symphony, and not a prodigy of genius. 

Mozart is everyone's favorite child genius, but amazing as his all-round musical precocity was and is, he had written nothing, by the age of eighteen, to equal Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, written in 1826 and premiered the following year in a concert that proclaimed the existence of a genuine wunderkind. (The rest of Mendelssohn's Sommernachtstraum music was written years later, for a command performance at Potsdam.) The chords that open this tireless chestnut are as ineffable as the ones with which Tristan begins, and seem almost too sophisticated for the century, much less the decade, in which Mendelssohn thought them up. Orpheus opened the second half of the concert with a performance that was simply perfect. Playing with less than half of a concert orchestra's complement of strings, the chamber group wrought every phrase and every part in high relief. 

The principal work of the evening was appropriately if accidentally the last. Jennifer Larmore sang Berlioz' song cycle, Les Nuits d'Ete. I will talk about the work itself, which belongs on my desert-island top ten list, some other time; I've got five or six recordings, and they're all different. There was nothing about Ms Larmore's performance that made me wish for a recording. I had not heard her in person before, and I wondered if she should be singing classical music at all. She can do it, but her temperament makes me suspect that she would be happier with the American Song Book - Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and the rest. When she turns on the vibrato that we expect from a 'serious' singer, her voice takes on a covered quality that blunts color and articulation, and is not intrinsically dramatic. She was a hit with the audience, however, and I can't deny that she put a lot of oomph into her Berlioz. The first thing I did, when I got home, was to listen to Eleanor Studer's version. 

What was Orpheus thinking when it planned this program? We'd have had the main course without an entrée, so to speak, and to have ended with the Weber would have been downright lowering. While I'm sorry that the snow kept so many subscribers from showing up, I couldn't have been more pleased that it upset the schedule.  


4 October 2003: Orpheus began its thirty-first season on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall - now no longer set to house the New York Philharmonic anytime soon - with the sort of music that it does better than any other group. We had Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C and Haydn's Symphony No. 92 in G, the 'Oxford.' Played by the Philharmonic, these works would sound overly varnished, as though the orchestra were polishing an already gleaming surface, not bringing out a new shine. Played by Orpheus, they sound as if they were receiving their premiere performances. Sure, the tunes are familiar, but they seem never to have been played by anyone else before. I attribute this freshness to two factors, aside from the musicians' sheer mastery. First, Orpheus plays without a conductor. This means not only that it must generate cohesiveness from within its ranks, as all chamber ensembles must, but also that there is no commanding authority to decide what the group will play. Second, the musicians rotate among what in a regular orchestra would be called desks, so that the first violinist in one performance may be spotted sitting in the rear of the section during the next. Almost everyone gets to shine.

André Watts joined the ensemble for the Beethoven. Mr Watts, once a prodigy, remains both a dignified and a boyish pianist, elegantly energetic. That would be a good definition of the Concerto as well. In fact Beethoven's second essay in the form, the C Major Concerto captures like no other work the first flush of Beethoven's compositional mastery. Still working within the framework of Mozartean conventions, the composer has found a voice altogether his own, and he does little here but trumpet it. The outer movements bristle with military self-assurance; the central Largo sings, for the first time in an orchestral setting, the Romantic slow movement that Beethoven invented. This may seem at times only a step from some of the corresponding movements in Mozart's late, great concertos, but that Beethoven has moved into new territory is signaled by a syntax, notable for its closures (the motifs with which the larger phrases end), that puts this music in the nineteenth century. Mr Watts played with the clear strength of mountain brook, turbulent but unhurried. It would be difficult to imagine a more refreshingly sane performance.

The Haydn came off every bit as  sparkling as it ought to do. After the introductory Adagio melted in the strings, the Allegro spiritoso took off, galloping through late-Haydn sophistications with bucolic nonchalance. The ruminating Adagio that followed, with its sudden dark outbursts that modulate from minor to major, was a perfect example of the dramatic style that Beethoven abandoned for his own; I point this out not to deprecate Haydn but to highlight the interest of the program, which gave us the earlier music later and so reversed the sense of 'progress.' The minuet got a brilliantly pointed performance - no French-horn flubs in the trio - and the Finale was nothing but fun, a dance for agile faux-peasant clowns; I'm still whistling it. Here as in the Beethoven, you might close your eyes and never guess that a band half the size of a modern symphony orchestra was producing all that vibrant sound.

Each half of the concert began with a work by Stravinsky, first the Concerto in E-Flat known as 'Dumbarton Oaks,' after the place of its first performance, and then the Danses Concertantes. Both are in the composer's neoclassic style, but the Concerto seems more coherent than the Danses. Orpheus played both with lively concision.

The final concert of the 2002/3 Orpheus season ended with the kind of work that Orpheus was formed to play, the Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Op. 60. As one of the central masterpieces of neoclassical music, containing adaptations of three pieces written by Lully himself for Molière's production. The Suite has one foot in each of Orpheus' specialties, and the band played the more archaic-sounding numbers, particularly 'The Entry of Cléonte,' with more than a touch of the dry-wine passion that marks the latest interpretations of baroque music. The players were equally at home in the last number's parodies of music from Das Rheingold, Don Quixote, and Der Rosenkavalier, the originals of which they are unlikely to play, at least together. The Overture and the Tailors' Dance were infused with bracingly absolute brio. Aside from an awkwardness at the beginning of the witty Intermezzo and a hootingly off trumpet entrance (corrected nicely on each of its three repetitions) during the dinner music, the execution was flawless, and I was never so sorry in my life to hear a performance come to an end.

The program begin with the New York premiere of Gunther Schuller's Concerto da Camera No. 2, a two-movement work. The opening Lento would serve very well as the film score for a horror movie set at an abandoned carnival; the ensuing Allegro con brio cleared the air for a jolly, if jarring, good time. I don't think that I would have enjoyed the piece at all if it hadn't been played as perfectly as it was. Such perfection was unaccountably missing from the performance of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297b, that followed. Although all four wind soloists are long-time members of Orpheus, they did not play together as an ensemble, and it occurred to me more than once that they might have been more relaxed had they been sitting down instead of standing together like a barbershop quartet. The beauty of the performance belonged to the strings, soft, supple, and slightly melancholy, as if brushed by the sadnesses of the sojourn in Paris during which Mozart composed this outwardly brilliant work.

Before the music got started, actor Tony Randall appeared onstage with a proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg, declaring Saturday, May 17, 2003 Orpheus Day, in honor of the ensemble's thirtieth birthday. (May 2003)


Nothing makes me feel more like a million bucks than an evening with Orpheus at Carnegie Hall. At least in that magnificent hall, always one of world's best, but brought to its present grandeur nearly twenty years after the late Isaac Stern saved it from destruction, the god of music never fails to alight upon the members of the chamber orchestra that bears his name, and Carnegie's Music Hall becomes a true Orpheum. On Thursday, 12 December, Orpheus gave its second concert of the season, offering a program of Fauré, Golijov, and Mozart. Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine composer of East-European background, was on hand to accept the audience's enthusiastic appreciation of not one but two of his works. That wisp of fact is remarkable all by itself. The applause that greets new music is usually (and in my opinion deservedly) pretty tepid. 

Mr Golijov's works, Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra and The Last Round, flanked the intermission. The soprano was Dawn Upshaw, singing, at the top of her form, music that had been written for her. In her simple, full-skirted wine velvet dress and what looked like no makeup - I know I'm not supposed to remark upon this kind of detail, but it was quite affecting - she struck a perfect balance between the formality of the musicians' black and the earthy character of her songs, two of which she started cold, either before or right with the orchestra. The first song, 'Night of the Flying Horses,' was in fact a solo lullaby, in Yiddish, that Golijov wrote for Sally Potter's film, The Man Who Cried, followed by a meditation for orchestra. A falling phrase in the contrabassoon reminded me of a similar stab in Mahler's 'Der Abschied,' and the music overall seemed informed by Enesco's Rumanian Rhapsodies. 'Lua Descolorida,' setting a poem by Rosalia de Castro, was also quite lovely, but my recollection of it was fairly blotted out by the pungency of the last number, 'How Slow the Wind.' The verse here conflated two of Emily Dickinson's brief poems (for a total of seven lines), and never have I heard a more full-voiced musical expression of Dickinson's abiding strangeness. 'How Slow' backs the long-breathed vocal line with the orchestra's galloping grief. I can't wait to hear this song, eerie but beautiful, frightful but wise, again. Ms Upshaw's top was fresh as ever, but the songs showed off her surprisingly burnished low register.

During the intermission, most of the music stands and nearly all of the chairs were removed from the stage. Certainly The Last Round, a tribute to Astor Piazzola, is the closest thing to a choreographed instrumental piece that I have ever seen. With the cellists seated in the center of the stage, two squads of violins and violists stand facing one another in something like a duel - or a poetry slam -  while the cellists sit magisterially between them, backed by the basses. There are two movements. The first, marked Movido, urgente, works with a figure that in its gradual upward scramble reminded me (of all things) of the first of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, although it's much more aggressive. The second movement, Muertes del Angel, is one long serene sigh. Both movements were inspired by the way tangueros play the bandoneon. Mr Golijov's music will pose no difficulties for fans of the Kronos Quartet, who have recorded a few of his pieces. The composer, said to have been surrounded by music since childhood, knows how to listen as well as he knows how to write. I lost no time ordering everything that I could find on CD; on the evidence of the other night's music, he is no one-note writer. 

The concert began with Gabriel Fauré's Masques et Bergamasques Suite, Op. 112. (Orpheus has recorded the Suite for DG.) Its title taken from a line in Verlaine's 'Clair de lune,' the poem that inspired Debussy's hit, Masques et Bergamasques is Fauré's contribution to the canon of 20th Century Neoclassicism, French division. Fond as I am of this kind of music, I'm still trying to figure out how the Suite had escaped me. The four movements are based on archaic dance forms, but the feeling is a good deal less severe than that of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. The concluding movement, a Pastorale, is almost English in feeling (well, Delius), and the Watteauvian prettiness of the rest of the suite gives way to something quite close to heartbreak. 

Having just spent a week poring over the Divertimento in E-Flat, K. 563, I was primed for the brilliant performance of Mozart's Symphony N0. 39, also in E-Flat, K. 543. So primed, in fact, that the symphony seemed to take about a minute to perform - a minute of eternal presence. What makes Orpheus's way with classical symphonies different from everyone else's is the propensity of its string sections to play as a chamber string quartet. In the heat of performance, the violinist all seem to lean toward one another, as if drawn by magnets. Such exuberance would never be tolerated in a conventional orchestra.

A few months ago, I stumbled across a recording of the 39th by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan, with a long bonus track in which Karajan rehearses the stately introduction to the first movement. As the music stopped and faded every two or three bars so that Karajan demand and cajole, I saw the arc of the great German tradition. The suspended French horn chords, for example, sounded like something out of Richard Strauss at his most empyrean. I also thought of the composite capitals atop the pilasters that support Carnegie's proscenium arch, massive but delicately-executed statements of classical order -  and now, here they were in front of me while the music went on its uninterrupted course. I don't think that life has anything finer to offer.

In the cab coming home, Kathleen, who is not really an aficianado of the classics, said that it had been a very good concert "'considering that I only knew one piece." To which I replied that an Orpheus concert is like a night of good jazz: you certainly don't go to the Blue Note expecting to be familiar with everything that's played. "True enough," she conceded. "Why don't you write that down," she said.  (December 2002)

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