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Orpheus at Carnegie

Season 32

23 October 2004: The new season got off to such a spanking start that we were out of Carnegie Hall at ten of ten - which almost caused an unexpected problem when we arrived two minutes later at the Brooklyn Diner: Eggs Benedict aren't served before ten o'clock. The concert started early, too, at five past eight (ten past is the new top-of-the-hour), and the wait between works was briefissimo. Even the intermission didn't drag, notwithstanding the need to roll out the Steinway. I'll be appropriately concise.

There were three works on the program: Transylvanian Dances, by Sandor Veress; Brahms's Haydn Variations, and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Garrick Ohlsson played the Chopin, as he did recently at an Orpheus concert given in Montclair, New Jersey. (More about that below.) I had never heard of Sandor Veress, (1907-1992), but the Dances, written in 1949, made delightful openers. They couldn't be more aptly named. Transylvania is currently part of Romania, but it used to be part of Hungary, and Veress's music reflects this overlap. The first dance, a 'Lassu,' brings Bartok to mind (Veress studied with Bartok, as well as with Kodaly), and the ensuing 'Ugros' is a sophisticated take on zigeuner music, but the third and fourth dances, 'Lejtos' and 'Dobbantos,' are not without reminiscences of George Enescu. Scored for strings, the Transylvanian Dances benefited from the jazz-tight ensemble playing for which Orpheus is famous.

The Haydn Variations - Haydn had nothing to do with the tune, of course - is by no means the first of Brahms's neoclassical compositions, but it is the most famous. Oh, dear, how famous. After an indifferent performance at Avery Fisher some years ago, I feared that I just didn't want to hear it any more, but the brief but articulate analysis of the the work that appears in Jan Swafford's biography of the composer (Knopf, 1997) made me dust off my cilia, and conclude that the work is a victim of lazy performances and even lazier recordings. This conclusion was borne out on at the concert. Orpheus, while uncannily producing a big-orchestra sound from its lean ranks, presented every instrument's every note with all the clarity physically possible. I heard at least five phrases or motifs that I hadn't made out before. Needless to say, this clarity was served up with magnificent élan.

If I were to lose my hearing, I might still find some pleasure in watching Garrick Ohlsson play the piano. It is not so much that he has beautiful hands as that he moves them as if they were dancers. Some might find this affected or precious, but the physical grace and restraint of Mr Ohlsson's manner is matched by power and poetry. For no good reason at all, I thought of Artur Rubinstein, whom I never heard play and whose performances were certainly somewhat more ramshackle than Mr Ohlsson's; nevertheless, there is a common lighthearted command. The concerto, written at the beginning of Chopin's career but after the Second Piano Concerto, is an exemplar of the grand, somewhat blustery, and, to me, crypto-comic manner of Weber and Cherubini, but it is nonetheless unmistakably Chopin, and it has an honored place on my short list, "The Only Think I Want To Hear Right Now." Because Chopin wrote so little for orchestra, it was not surprising to read that this was "Orpheus' first performance ever of a work by Chopin."

Last weekend's performance of this program in Montclair survived a logistical nightmare. Somehow - when I get round to clipping the Times I'll let you know - Mr Ohlsson was scheduled to play in two concerts on the same evening, the other venue being the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, which is neither far from nor next door to Montclair. Programs were shuffled, and Orpheus agreed to start half an hour early. Mr Ohlsson spent the evening playing the Chopin and Brahms's First as well. What would we do without limousines?


4 December 2004: Ute Lemper was the featured artist at Orpheus's second Carnegie Hall concert this season. In the program, she was identified not as a soprano or as a mezzo or as an alto, although she is all of these, more or less, but as a "vocalist." Her performance took us about as far from its stylistic core as a "classical" concert can go  without resorting to synthesizers and electric guitars. That's not to say that it belonged at Radio City; Ms Lemper's material was far too sophisticated for that venue. But her delivery was unmistakably pop. In the wilfully strident upper register of her voice, she outbelts even Patti LuPone. She drapes her femme-fatale figure in dresses that, in context, are quite provocative, she sings perched on very high heels, and she wields her mike like someone who was born on a television special. She even does a little shimmying. Meanwhile, despite big, elaborate orchestrations that bring Claus Ogerman and Vince Mendoza to mind, Orpheus almost gets lost in the background. Ute Lemper turns "concerts" into "events." All that was missing was jazzed-up lighting.

Ms Lemper gathered her material under the rubric, "Poets and Provocateurs." There were three Kurt Weill numbers, including, as an encore, "Surabaya Johnny," two songs by Jacques Brel, "Ne me quitte pas" and "Amsterdam", and two songs by Hanns Eisler, "Die Graben" and "The Waterwheel." Two songs came from the Piaf songbook, the very arty "Padam" (Norbert Glanzberg) and that rousing chestnut, "Milord" (Marguerite Monnot). There were two songs by Ms Lemper herself - in my view, the weakest items in her program, but then I'm not fond of Stephen Sondheim, from whom she appears to draw inspiration. The second of these numbers, "September Mourn," a "love-song" written to New York in the wake of 9/11, made me fidgety; the song never rose to the distinction required by that terrible wound. What I did really love were the two pieces that opened the second half of the concert, a tender Yiddish song by Chava Alberstein, "Bokserboym," and a conjunction of Amina Alaoi's "La Qad Kountou" and Nachoum Heimann's "Tzemach Bar." In the Alaoi song, Ms Lemper seemed to lose herself in the manner of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; the trance was quietly hair-raising. (I apologize for omitting the names of the many lyricists.)

The burden of all these songs is cosmopolitan, and they reminded us that people who get around as much as Ute Lemper does are fervent believers in tolerance and peace. There was an unmistakable whiff of the Cold War in her performance, which only makes sense in a child of divided Berlin, but it did not, I'm unhappy to see, feel dated. The Cold War was fought by enemies who, for the most part, declined to get to know much about each other; today's pro-war Americans share with Islamic "fanatics" and "insurgents" the belief that passports are unnecessary and possibly undesirable. Ms Lemper demonstrates that the anti-war anger of the Sixties is alive and well; it just dresses much better.

Orpheus did have the stage to itself at the beginning and then at the end. Framing Ms Lemper's suite of songs were Ervin Schulhoff's Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2. The Schulhoff is delightfully naive take on the American popular dances that puzzled and intrigued Europe between the wars; with its klaxon and its xylophone, its "Tango" that is not a tango and its jazz-free "Jazz," the music conjures up the image of a disapproving Margaret Dumont, apoplectic in pearls. The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, while notionally tonal, occupies a frontier well beyond that of Gurre-Lieder, and is so heavy with musical frustration that it's easy, in hindsight, to see the composer's radical break with traditional tonality as inevitable. The only alternative must have been suicide.

Both orchestral pieces provoked a measure of class warfare. between Orpheus's downtown fans up in the balconies, and veteran old farts like me in the parquet and boxes. We were shshed and hissed at in our youth until it was drummed into us that applause is inappropriate before the entirety of a multi-movement work has been performed. No matter how brilliant the cadenza at the end of a concerto's opening allegro, the audience is to sit perfectly still while the orchestra and the soloist prepare for the melting slow movement. Observance of this rule has been wavering at New York concerts for some time now, and if last night was a reliable indicator, the ban on inter-movement applause is not long for this world. (December 2004)


8 February 2005: The only point on which I agree with Times critic Alfred Kozinn about the other night's Orpheus concert at Carnegie Hall is that the program was unusual. You know me about programs - read any MET Orchestra piece. I didn't expect to like what Orpheus was serving, a sequence of World Premiere, Mendelssohn Piano Concerto, New York Premiere, Mendelssohn Symphony. But it was quite satisfying, and if anything it gave an edge to the Mendelssohn that might have been lacking in more conventional surroundings. Mr Kozinn didn't much care for the World Premiere and the Symphony, and he thought that the programming was just odd. I found it interesting, and it took me one step closer to shedding my dread of dissonant, irregular music. It still has its longueurs for me, but Orpheus never fails to shimmer whatever it plays with beauty.

The World Premiere was a work commissioned, naturally, by Orpheus, Daniel Schnyder's Concerto for Winds (Some Other Blues). Kathleen and I agreed that it could have just as well have been called "Homage to Reginald Marsh," because its boogie-woogie sass wore the same faux-respectable perfume sported by Marsh's big, blowsy blondes, and there were many reminiscences of early classical tributes to jazz by composers such as Milhaud and Bernstein. It seemed very difficult music to play, but that was part of the fun, not a drawback as it usually is. There seemed to me to be five movements in the Concerto, which lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen minutes. Most of the textures were frantically jazzy, but in the fourth movement the players relaxed into what came very close to an old-timey dance number with a tune. That soon faded into a whirlwind; the music nonetheless ended with great coherence.

The New York Premiere, Erkki-Sven Tüür's Action - Passion - Illusion, for string orchestra, couldn't have been less like the Schnyder, not least because it celebrated warm string tones. The atmosphere brought together elements of Perotin and John Adams, and indeed the work sounded as though it would suit the Kronos Quartet down to the ground if the Kronos Quartet were twice or thrice its size. The opening Action was a Bartokian march that alternated bold scrapes with flurries of pizzicato. Passion was utterly elegiac; it began very slowly in the cellos and basses, where it stayed slow, but became faster as the violas and violins took it; the climax was a swarm of high violins that put me in mind of seagulls (and Kathleen, less happily, of mayflies). I was also reminded more than once of Tallis's Spem in alium, the great "40 voice motet." Illusion was hypnotic in the minimalist manner, although it was never actually constrained to repetitions. Although I don't know what I'm talking about, I sensed a current of very interesting counterpoint in the lower instruments.

In short, now that I know what to expect of these works, I'd like to hear them again. I'm not sure, though, that I'd trust any ensemble less proficient than Orpheus to make them shine.

The first half of the concert featured Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D, Op. 40. This charming, accessible piece shape-shifts constantly among reminiscences of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, but it is always obviously Mendelssohn. The pianist was 24 year-old Jonathan Biss, and he was quite something to hear. In one word, I would characterize his playing as attenuated; he seems to be a perfectionist with regard to dynamics but not at all flashy in his execution. For so young a man, he plays with immense deliberation. Some listeners may find him labored, but to me he was perfectly fleet, and I hope that he does great things with the Mozart concertos.

The first movement of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony, known as the Italian, might have been just ever so slightly more raptly played; it's in music like this - in first movements particularly - that the musicians of Orpheus have a way of losing themselves in an ecstatic meld. Mr Kozinn opined that the band needed a conductor to parry the thrusts of strings and winds, but to me it was simply a case of mild fatigue in the violins. The performance got better and better as we moved through the Andante con moto and the Con moto moderato - how like Mendelssohn, really, to sidestep the tradition of calling this movement either a minuet or a scherzo (it's something between a minuet and a waltz) - and by the time we got to the final Saltarello, Orpheus was in brilliant mode, clipping through the manic folk-dance rhythms faster and faster (not really, but the illusion was potent) until the final burst of closing chords.

Here's an odd factoid from the program notes: Mendelssohn, who wrote the Italian Symphony for London, never allowed a performance in Germany during his lifetime. Now, why, d'you suppose? And here's a nice story about the evening itself: Kathleen lost her ticket in the rush to get from Wall Street to Carnegie Hall. Wondering what she might do - what she might have done, I reasoned during the concert, was to have bought the cheapest ticket in the house and used it to get to our seats - she approached a woman who seemed to be selling a ticket. The woman wasn't, but a young man standing next to her, having heard a bit of Kathleen's tale of woe, simply offered her one of his - he'd given up on the friend he was waiting for. It was a lovely thing to do, and Kathleen tried to find him at intermission to give him her card and offer to pay. But he was nowhere to be seen, and I wonder if he'd preferred not to sit through the concert alone. Whoever he was, many thanks. What makes the story a corker is that Kathleen was early.


11 April 2005: If I say that Saturday night's was not one of the great evenings at Orpheus, that's only to show that I have a sense of degrees. By any standard, it was a very fine concert, worthy and interesting, and, at the end, huge fun. The dampers are two: first, the ensemble failed to ignite during Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201. It may be that the symphony lacks combustible material, and it may be that I was inattentive, but moments of ignition with Orpheus are invariable signaled by a strange effect among the violins: their bows all appeal to be pointing to the same pole. The symphony's charms, however, were all well polished and on view. The symphony dates from the period of the violin concertos, and has the same warm blush, but here, without a soloist to stand behind, Mozart pushes the four non-stringed instruments - two oboes and two horns - occasionally to the front. I used to sniff at these, at the time to me, non symphonies because they lacked all the color of Mozart's mature orchestra, and only the oboes distinguished them from the horn-backed serenades and divertimenti. I've outgrown such thinking. The symphony was most welcome.

In one respect, Haydn strikes me as an exaggerated version of Handel. Handel toiled long, fruitfully as to music, fitfully as to profits, in the vineyard of opera, but no matter how much commotion the City Opera revivals drum up, he will always be celebrated for his oratorios. Haydn's operas, in slight contrast, aren't even revived. How is it that, listening to his Scena di Berenice, a concert piece for soprano and orchestra set to a well-worn text by Metastasio, one is never for a moment reminded of the grand power of The Creation? It wasn't Barbara Bonney's fault, and it wasn't that of Orpheus, either. Like all of the dramatic Haydn that I've heard, the music was overtly semiotic, constantly signaling to some offstage, inaudible effect. Regret! Fear! Longing! Wretchedness! You've seen those photographs of silent-movie era photographs of actors miming set expressions, as if doing "rage" were simply a matter of looking up the mood in a dictionary and contriving to stimulate one's facial muscles accordingly. Ms Bonney sang the scene very well, although not so well, one imagines, as Cecilia Bartoli, that epitome of vocal good taste, would have done. Her voice showed signs of growing up, of getting a little heftier and more lyrical; Ms Bonney has probably sung all the Sophies that anybody would ever want to sing.

But is she ready to sing the Marschallin? Anne Midgette, in today's Times, writing about the next work on the program, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, was firm about that prospect:

I have a personal prejudice about "Knoxville," which is usually sung these days by light-voiced Americans but which was recorded early on by Eleanor Steber and Leontyne Price. I would like to hear it sung by Deborah Voigt: I think it's too taxing for a light soprano, and it certainly was for Ms. Bonney. To be sure, she has added a quality of depth to her soprano, but she oversang fairly early on in the Haydn and was simply out of gas by its climax, with little left for the soaring and searing emotional pinnacles of the Barber.

That's not very nice, but it's not entirely unfair, either. "Out of gas" is putting things a little crudely, but there were moments when Ms Bonney's voice sank below the orchestral waves, and her English was almost entirely incomprehensible. Perhaps the performance will at least stimulate musikfreunde to buy Steber's recording. Its high point, however, was Barbara Bonney's svelte, seductive, and yet utterly American appearance on the stage. Ladies will want to know that she wore a clinging gown the hem of which had to be lifted for walking - a great way to show off stylish heels without letting them distract from the performance.

John Adams's Chamber Symphony, which closed the program to great acclaim, is all about distraction. The only typical trait is the ironclad rhythm of each of the three movements, but this insistence only highlights a great insistence: that of a bunch of little boys trying to get their way. Mr Adams has written that he was "inspired" (right) by the juxtaposition of listening to Schoenberg while his son watched cartoons, as well as by a birthday party "which occurred in (and laid waste to) our house." He has also revised the score, so that it can be performed by string sections instead of string soloists, and this, I think, is a very good idea. The work doesn't need the shrillness of unrelenting solo violins; when the soloists do take over, it's a great effect. Briefly, the three movements are marked Dennis the Menace, Bugs [Bunny] on Drugs, and Daffy Does Durango. That's to say, Mongrel Airs, Aria with Walking Bass, and Roadrunner. There were appreciative snickers throughout the performance, and the performance merited the ovation that volleyed back. Too bad Carl Stallings never got hear it.


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