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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Concert Review: Of Intimacies and Mortal Thoughts

Mischa Maisky and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra open the 92nd St. Y season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mischa Maisky. Photo © Deutsche Grammophon/UMG.
Ask a music lover (like your humble narrator!) what hall has the "best" acoustics in New York, and the response might well be the Kaufman Auditorium. This wood-paneled, intimate hall is the centerpiece of the 92nd St. Y, that educational and cultural center that stands foremost among such institutions on Manhattan’s swanky Upper East Side. In addition to its lectures, social events and educational programs, the 'Y' offers top-flight lieder, chamber music and occasional orchestral concerts, all of which are among the finest New York offers in terms of musical quality. 


That hall opened last night with the first concert of the Y’s 2017-18 featured artists were the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, themselves based on the Upper West Side and famed throughout the world for their taut chamber music performances and uniquely cooperative, collective approach to music-making. For this concert, their first appearance at the Kaufman in 15 years, Orpheus was accompanied by the virtuoso cellist Mischa Maisky, a widely respected artist who is something of an infrequent presence on New York’s concert stages.

The concert opened with Anton Arensky's Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky was Arensky's teacher. Following the elder composer's unexpected death, Arensky arranged one of his themes (the song "Legend") into the central movement of his Second String Quartet. This arrangement for chamber orchestra subjects the material to seven variations, bookended by opening and closing statements of the original theme.

For this concert, Orpheus only brought its string players. The forces were: seven violins, three violas, two cellos and one double bass. They played with a rich, full sound. The intimacy of the venue and the clear acoustic couched the warm wooden tones of the strings to the best possible effect, and the variations, with their shifts in tempos and styles, tickled, teased and entertained the ear. Arensky's music captures the pathos of his mentor, especially in the moving slow variations.

The little orchestra was then joined by Mr. Maisky, as the soloist in a chamber arrangement of Schubert’s A minor Cello Sonata. Mr. Maisky's broad, soulful tone proved ideal for  the Italianate, almost operatic melodic lines of the opening movement. Over and over, the soloist found himself returning to a skipping, descending figure that sounded like comic patter from a Rossini opera. In the movement's closing bars, this theme stretched and slowed, acquiring a funereal quality before dissipating in a final, energetic burst.

The second and third movements were shorter but equal to the first in weight and majesty. Here, Mr. Maisky took the lead again, engaging in slow, thoughtful monologues over the Orphic accompaniment. After a short conjoining intermezzo, the players veered head-on into the sunny Allegretto that closes this lovely work. The cellist returned to give an encore with the chamber orchestra's assistance: Tchaikovsky's beloved Andante cantabile.

The concert ended with more Tchaikovsky, specifically the Op. 68 Serenade for Strings. This is an Orpheus staple, a work perfectly suited to the size and temperament of this flexible and forward-thinking ensemble. And yet, this performance made its four familiar movements sound fresh. Flowing currents of melodic invention were shot through with Tchaikovsky's love of Russian folk songs and dances. One imagined an elegant cotillion in a Russian winter palace, before the fast dance of the frenetic final movement sent the revelers home in a state of happy exhaustion. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.