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Orpheus at Carnegie

Season 33

6 May 2006: On Saturday, Orpheus followed with the last of its Carnegie Hall concerts for the season. The big noise on the program was Leon Fleisher, whose recordings of the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos, made with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, were the ones I grew up to. By the time I was listening, however, Mr Fleisher had developed dystonia in his right hand, and was down to playing the left-hand repertoire. According to an entry at Wikipedia, Botox came to Mr Fleisher's rescue. I remember his initial comeback; he played Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 at Tanglewood. That's hardly a work of comparable difficulty to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 73, the "Emperor."

The "Emperor" is my least-favorite Beethoven piano concerto. It is all assertive Olympics and no feeling. The finale is almost a Viennese waltz. The Adagio un poco mosso is lovely, but the older I get the more sentimental, nay, hammier, Beethoven's mood studies become. They're all variations on the same theme: ageing, ill-mannered genius adores beautiful, unattainably aristocratic maiden. Nur Wer die Sehnsucht kennt weiß, was ich leide. (A text that Schubert set with far sharper desolation.) In any case, I don't find the "Emperor" very interesting as a rule. It was interesting the other night because of Mr Fleisher's somewhat erratic performance. Crystal clear at times, his playing got fudgy at others, mumbling delectably but mumbling just the same. Potential trainwrecks were averted. The orchestra played with great élan, proving once again the disposability of conductors.

The program began with the first of Bach four Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066. It is always interesting to compare the Suites - also known as "Overtures" - to the Brandenburg Concertos, or rather just to try to think of them in the same thought. The Brandenburgs are thoroughly playful, written for the joys of performance. The Suites, in contrast, are aimed at aristocratic connoisseurs who are sitting still in armchairs. BWV 1066 is, I believe, the longest. It is also the most archaically pompous, relying on oboes, not trumpets, for fanfare. Sometimes I am more in the mood for the Suites than at others, and on Saturday I wasn't particularly tuned in to their wavelength. But I did sit up and pay attention to the busy flowing lines of idle counterpoint in the second violins and the violas that slip beneath and almost liquefy the sharp dotted rhythms of the Forlane. I think I noticed them because Bach turns them off for three bars in the b-section. Sometimes you have to see music, whether on the page or on the stage.

After the Bach, we had a premiere - Joan Tower's Chamber Dance. This remarkable piece was commissioned by Orpheus, and it is the first piece of modern music that I have ever taken to right away. I can't really write well about it, because it was unlike anything that I'd ever heard. Actually, the first part (there seemed to be three), sounded as though Ms Tower had taken apart Stravinsky's Sacre de printemps and the earlier Scherzo fantasque and put bits of their scoring to new uses. Chamber Dance may not be totally comprehensible (at the first hearing) but it is wonderfully engaging, and I thoroughly enjoyed following it. When Ms Tower stepped onto the stage, I shot up enthusiastically. What a pleasant change.

I almost typed "peasant" there, and it would have been a meaningful slip. Chamber Dance almost always sounds like plausible film-score music, and it's exciting in much the same way. An action film shot in outer space, say. There are several solo passages, but the ones that made the most impression upon me were for the three stringed instruments. The viola solo was particularly warm and welcome.

3 December 2005: The principal work on this Saturday-night program was Bach's Magnificat, BWV 243. In many ways the ideal introduction to Bach's choral music, the Magnificat combines the festive, trumpet-brightened tone of the Christmas music, the urgency of the Passions, and the instrumental delights of the larger cantatas in a chorale-free setting of the Latin text. The more you get to know of Bach, the more you'll find that the Magnificat hits all the bases.

The words of this prayer are taken from Luke 1:47-55. I've always associated it with the Annunciation scene, but in fact it is Mary's response to her cousin Elizabeth's rejoicing. Bach treats every line of Scripture (except for the first two, which he breaks into four) as a separate number, and tacks the liturgical "Gloria" onto the end. The twelve-movement result takes slightly less than a half-hour to perform. (Listen!)

Orpheus was joined by the Bach Choir of New York, a body drawn from the Choir of St Ignatius Loyola, under the direction of Kent Tritle. The evening's soloists, in turn, were drawn from the choir. Mezzo-soprano Katie Geissinger was lovely to look at but somewhat uncertain of pitch; it was a very slight "somewhat," but it roused concern while she sang the "Et exultavit." Soprano Rachel Rosales sang the "Quia respexit" very nicely, while bass Matthew Boehler performed the "Quia fecit mihi magna" with an idiosyncratic enunciation. The stars of the evening were mezzo-soprano Ory Brown and tenor James Archie Worley, who performed the duet "Et misericordia" - I had never noticed that its pulse is the same as that of the opening number of the St Matthew Passion - and then, respectively, the matched arias, "Deposuit potentes" (Mr Worley) and "Esurientes" (Ms Brown). They sang with verve and even a touch of abandon. The women's voices (so to speak; there was a countertenor on the risers) gave the "Suscepit Israel" the loveliest performance that I've ever heard; Bach strikes a positively archaic note here, and the mood in Carnegie Hall went very mystical for a few moments. The full chorus discharged its duties excellently. The orchestra was great, too. The whole thing was over much too soon.

The first half of the program was given to works by Respighi and Hindemith. Respighi's Trittico Bottecelliano ("Botticelli Triptych") may be the most successful tonalization of great painting going. The three canvases all but loomed on the wall behind the orchestra, so convincingly were La Primavera, L'adorazione dei Magi, and La Nascita di Venere brought to life. The orchestra navigated the complex score with artful aplomb, proving once again that conductors are not necessary. The Trittico was followed by a suite by Paul Hindemith that I'd never heard of, much less heard, Tuttifäntchen. Composed for a Christmas pantomime, this music is utterly unlike Hindemith's other music in that it is actually quite amusing. The opening numbers have the simplicity and repetition of charming exercises, but the composer abandons this before it becomes tiresome. Two numbers, the "March," with its sarcastic perscussion, and the "Dance of the Wooden Dolls," a cakewalk highly reminiscent - how can this be? - of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, stood out for fun.

As I say, it was all over much too soon.


18 October 2005: The new season began with an elegant program, beautifully executed. The principal works were Mozart's first important piano concerto (Nº 9 in E-Flat, K 271, the "Jeunehomme" - named for blind pianist Barbara Jeunehomme to play on her tour stop in Salzburg) and Beethoven's first important piano concerto (Nº 3 in g, Op 37). Each was preceded by a roughly contemporary overture by a less exalted composer. JC Bach's Sinfonia in B-Flat, Op 18 Nº 2 opened the concert, while the overture to Luigi Cherubini's Faniska followed the intermission. Both "minor" composers were at least popular as Mozart and Beethoven in their day; neither was nearly as demanding.

This is not to say that the Sinfonia was as trivial as I was afraid it might be. "London" Bach, the youngest of Johann Sebastian's two broods, was, even during his father's last years, the most famous Bach in music. Instead of following in JS's footsteps, as his elder brother Karl Philipp Emanuel did - JC aimed at worldly success and achieved it. His operas have disappeared entirely, but their overtures, collected in his declining years as "symphonies" still serve as perfect indicators of the state of music that Mozart grew up with. Orpheus chose what was originally the overture to Bach's setting of Lucio Silla. Lively but focused, the outer movements were rhythmic riffs on attractive but unmemorable motifs. The inner movement sang a lovely song for the oboe, somewhat reminiscent of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. The whole work gave the orchestra an enthusiastic warmup.

Written in 1777, the "Jeunehomme" concerto is scored for the standard Salzburg orchestra: two oboes, two French horns, and strings. This immediately marks it apart from the later, Viennese concerti, which are so justly celebrated for their brilliant woodwind scoring. Another signal difference is the piano's appearance in the opening call-and-response. More subtly, there is nothing like the wealth of throwaway motifs that luxuriate in the later works. Nevertheless, the concerto has an equal length and a nearly equal heft. The interplay of solo and ritornello is already Mozart's own. If the pianist goes for great length without a rest, this isn't because the piano part is always in the foreground; Mozart more or less invented the idea of keeping the instrument on the boil, as it were, so that it could easily pull out of nowhere without ever having been out of the game. The development is modest but suspenseful. All in all, this is one of the jolliest first movements ever. The slow movements is one of those Mozart reveries that seems at first not to have a pulse, but to be weighed down with tragic melacholy. But once the piano begins to spin its ornamentation, the poignance becomes interesting. The concluding rondo begins with a dazzling solo that defines the razzle-dazzle frame of concertos for a century to come.

The second concerto, the only one of Beethoven's five to be written in the minor, quite consciously takes Mozart's Piano Concerto Nº 24 in c minor, K 487 as its model. Beethoven admired this concerto greatly, and I seem to recall that he wrote cadenzas for it.  But his third concerto is no imitation of Mozart. Its lineaments are still recognizable as Mozartean, but its details and inventions are not. Even as it looks back to the earlier work's dark complexity, it suggests new possibilities of scale, and its boldness reflects the increased strength of the then modern piano. Because Beethoven's tunes, as immortal as they are, did not pour out of a Mozart-sized cornucopia, the composer was quite sparing with his material, and made it pay - a lesson that he learned from Haydn. There are two subjects, and they are rigorously mined. If the second subject is only hinted at in the extended development, this is no loss, because the first is tailor-made for Beethoven's gift for deconstructing melodies, laying out all their parts, and recombining them. In the second movement, Beethoven offers what I think is his most bountiful contribution to music: the great romantic tune for "the man who enjoys Hamlet." Noble and heroic without being fussy or stiff, the broad song plays out against a background that could have been lifted from another Mozart concerto, the one now known as "Elvira Madigan," after the movie of that name (Nº 20). The concerto ends with a big rondo that closes on a sprightly coda. It could be by Mozart, except that it couldn't be.

Both concerti were performed à point. Richard Goode, one of the most eminent interpreters of this music, plays with a clean and sparkling touch. He seems very reluctant to use the pedal, and this makes for a sound that is bracing rather than sumptuous. Mr Goode has a showman's sense of pace, which he deploys with great discretion but to great effect; I could tell from the way he worked the transition from the rondo proper to the coda at the end of the Beethoven that he was going to get a standing ovation. But then the orchestra that he was working with is the most reliable producer of disciplined excitement that I know of.

As for Cherubini, the Faniska Overture is pleasant enough, in a big-boned way. The idea of a rusticated Haydn on steroids was impossible to shake. It was interesting to listen to something that we know that Haydn and Beethoven heard and admired. Whether they were being polite, or whether they didn't understand how much better their own work was, we'll never know.

* Music for the Man who Enjoys Hamlet, by B H Haggin (Knopf, 1944; Vintage. 1960), is one of the most remarkable music-appreciation books going. Hard as it is, nowadays, to imagine the businessman who look forward to spending quiet evenings with "a much read copy of Hamlet to take your mind far from the wearying details and arguments and vexations of the long day at the office" for whom this book was written, it will still take an attentive reader quickly into the core of the Western Classical Music tradition. Not surprisingly, Beethoven is the most discussed composer.


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