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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Concert Review: They Don't Need No Podium

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra onstage at Carnegie Hall.
Image © 2013 the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is one of this city's most enduring classical music institutions: a democratically organized collective of players who play four shows a year at Carnegie Hall. There is no music director. There isn't even a concertmaster. The players rotate the first chair of the violin section, the player whose bow movements provides the beat for most performances. And yet, despite their recorded legacy and reputation, this writer had never seen the ensemble play.

That changed on Saturday night, when Orpheus offered a Carnegie Hall program featuring major Mozart works along with a Concerto Grosso by Handel. Less conventional programming was offered too, with the nine minute Serious Song for Strings by 20th century composer Irving Fine.

The concert opened with Handel's third Concerto Grosso, contrasting the sound of two violins and a solo cello against the tutti This was a far cry from Handel's stodgy image: three movements of crisply played string writing. the three soloists carried the main musical ideas, playing call-and-response with the tutti ensemble. Bright rhythms and quick-footed work in the three movements echoed Handel's revolutionary writing for the human voice in his operas and oratorios.

A slightly larger ensemble returned to the stage, joined by the evening's soloist Martin Fröst, for Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Mr. Fröst used a longish clarinet tuned in A for this concerto. He brought elegant playing to the sol turning to interact with the musicians and leading the charge through this complex product of Mozart's final years.

The solo clarinet dodged and dived against the tutti in the slow movement with the finale offering opportunity for sweet melodic line and flashy passages requiring fast figues.. The soloist then obliged the audience with an improvisational encore: the first melisma from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring which careened into a wild, celebratory klezmer.

Irving Fine is not among the best known 20th century composers--he was an American conservative following in the footsteps of Samuel Barber and Douglas Moore. Yet here, the Serious Song proved a compelling, closely argued work for string orchestra, with a thoughtful, contemplative tone that recalled Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen.

The concert ended with Mozart's Symphony No. 29. Composed when Mozart was just 18, this is one of the important examples of his stylistic maturity, with bold ideas in the first movement and rustic cellos sawing away in the minuet. Whie the influence of Haydn can still be heard, the complex lines for oboes recall the brilliance of Mozart's early opera seria like Mitridate. The finale was best of all, a madcap chase for strings and wind, racing through each repetition as if the orchestra were speeding along a circular track. Who needs a conductor to make inspired music?

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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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.