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Orpheus at Carnegie

Season 36

16 October: Haydn, Moravec, Ibert and Saint-SaŽns, with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

16 October 2007: The Crawl to Mahler continues! At its first Carnegie concert of the season, Orpheus played the sly trick of backing up French virtuoso Jean-Yves Thibaudet for a performance of Camille Saint-SaŽns's Piano Concerto No 2 in g, Op. 22. This work of art is so entertaining ó now camp, now vulgar, and often shimmeringly lovely ó that nobody pays attention to its finer points, the existence of which is in any case arguable. After a slablike-solemn opening movement, if "movement" is really the word for music so stalled in its own spellbinding, Saint-SaŽns lets rip a gossamer scherzando. Lets call it "Alsatian": jardin de biŤre, with a tenor from Gilbert & Sullivan strumming a guitar among the tables. Once you've heard it, you can never forget it, because it possesses that magical quality, more common, for some reason, to French music of the Nineteenth Century than to any other kind, of instant clichť. One shudders to imagine the jingles that Saint-SaŽns, Bizet, Gounod, and others would have branded upon our minds had they not worked so ahead of their time.

And the finale! Drama Queen of the Nile, tout court. When it was over, the audience erupted with such enthusiasm you'd think that there had been vendors working the seats.

All of this was very sly, however, because the Concerto is Big Music. There is no way to regard it as amplified chamber music. Fast and furious when it's not pompous, the music seems to cry out for a conductor to match. But of course the conductor is the one thing that Orpheus does without. Once upon a time, this maestro-glorifying music was very popular with the baton-wielders. But conductors have grown austere and "modest," so you won't be finding it on concert programs too often anymore. Word has gotten out that it was written for Anton Rubinstein, the great pianist who was widely suspected of being Beethoven's bastard son (!). Rubinstein wanted to conclude a Paris gig with the ego-stoking experience of conducting something. So Saint-SaŽns, who'd been leading backup for him, dashed of this work, only to have the devil of the time learning to play the piano part himself.

The evening fell into two programs. The first part was "traditional" Orpheus: a mid-period Haydn symphony (No. 59, the "Fire") followed by a new composition in an old mold: Paul Moravec's Brandenburg Gate, an entry in the catalogue of Bach-inspired chamber orchestra pieces that Orpheus has commissioned over the past several years. Scored for flute, clarinet (with bass clarinet passages), trumpet,  violin and strings, the work takes off from the second of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, bridging to the baroque in the best of way, by means of concision and economy. Unlike so much modern music, it seemed to know where it was going, but it didn't sound at all like the "source" of its inspiration. The slow movement was quite beautifully grave and wrought, and the finale began with a jazzy but not jazz-sounding pulsing in the big strings. Like several of the entrants in Orpheus' Brandenburg series, this was a work that I'd like to listen to at home.

As for the Haydn, I listened to its Andante (the second movement) with my ears turned all the way up. I was waiting for it to stop sounding like Mozart. It never did. This was astonishing, because Haydn and Mozart no longer sound more alike to me than salt and pepper. The sonorous string writing reminded me of the cantilenas in Mozart's youthful serenades, when, as if aiming to be merely pretty, he embarrasses the company with statements of passionate, if guileless, beauty. Haydn's pulling off the same effect suggests that its source must have been something in the Austrian water system.

The surprise work, for me, was Jacque Ibert's Hommage ŗ Mozart, a work commissioned for Mozart's bicentennial in 1956. It is no closer to Mozart than Moravec is to Bach, but its relation is entirely different. Ibert imagines Mozart in the Art-Dťco glitter of mid-century France, all sophisticated dash and no guilelessness. There's good precedent for this tack, as Mozart himself took it during his Paris sojourn in 1778. He went to Paris, with his mother, to try to make his fortune, but the best job that he was offered was that of organist at Versailles. Talk about living death! Real death visited him as well, when his mother took sick and died. If you want to know what this period of Mozart's music sounds like, you already do: the Rondo alla Turca is its epitome. The Hommage ŗ Mozart, by the way, was a fitting overture to the second, "big boy" half of Orpheus' program, for, although it is a short piece, it is an extremely complicated bit of orchestral music. The Orpheus players, as always, knew it cold. Permalink.

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