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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Concert Review: Leaderless, Not Rudderless

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra opens its 2016 season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Photo © 2016 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra occupies a unique place in the New York cultural landscape. This collective of musicians embraces a unique, cooperative approach to orchestral playing, rotating the roles of leadership and playing all of their concerts (whether at Carnegie Hall or on tour) without the benefit of a conductor. On Thursday night, Orpheus opened its 2016 season at Carnegie with a program featuring three trusty favorites and one new work.

The concert started with a cheerful opener, the dramatic overture to Mozart's final opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito. This curtain-raiser featured crisp-folded strings, delicate woodwinds and judicious application of timpani and brass to convey the grandeur and energy of this brilliant opera. It also set the table for an ambitious evening of music and served as a proper welcome-back for this orchestra.

Beethoven's First Piano Concerto was actually his second one completed, with the numbers being fudged by his publisher at the time. However, everything was in order for this performance, with soloist Christian Zacharias joining the Orpheus players, who by their custom had changed concertmasters for the second piece. Mr. Zacharias plays with a slightly acidic style, bringing a keen edge to Beethoven's expansive first-movement piano part as the tutti offered its own accompanying statement.

The second movement brought the piano to the center of attention, with a long-limbed and elegant theme that unwound itself with a pleasant, sunny languor. The pell-mell finale followed, with pianist and orchestra challenging each other in a good-natured race to the finish line. Here, Mr. Zacharias showed fleet, accurate finger-work, matched turn for turn and repetition for repetition through this, the most bucolic of Beethoven rondos.

Following the interval, violist Dov Scheindlin took the mic to introduce composer Jessie Montgomery and her new work Records From a Vanishing City. Ms. Montgomery is a Juilliard product, a composer steeped not only in the great classics but with a strong jazz influence. She explained how this work was inspired by a friend and neighbor of hers who died, donating his record collection to her as a legacy, and how the great jazz discs of the 20th century served as a launch point for her own composition.

Records proved to be in three movements. It was a moving and jazzy elegy, incorporating trumpet (played with a Harmon mute), the acerbic "blue" clarinet tone associated with George Gershwin, and many opportunities for the Orpheus players to flex their rhythmic muscle. It was also a moving ode to a New York being chewed and swallowed by developers and realtors, a rallying cry for the spirit of this great city.

The concert ended with Georges Bizet's Symphony in C, a bold and inspired work that was penned when the composer of Carmen was just 17 years old. It did not enter the repertory until 1935, but Orpheus (who recorded this work for Deutsche Grammophon) were instrumental (no pun intended) in furthering its reputation. Their account of the four movements showed Bizet's gift for melody and absorbing dance rhythms into his music, and how even at this early age the French composer was a master of orchestration. 

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