Saturday, December 9, 2017

A world premiere with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Last Saturday, I went to hear the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra perform at Carnegie Hall.  It was my first time attending an Orpheus concert, having heard many of their fine recordings over the course of their remarkable forty five year history.

What distinguishes Orpheus from other orchestras is that the musicians play without a conductor. So, how does that work, exactly? Who makes the decisions?  Orpheus solves this problem through a more democratic process, where each musician can have input into how a passage is played.  But when it's crunch time, in performance, the concertmaster is the de-facto leader.

At a rehearsal or recording session, just like in the movies, you can take a passage over and over again, until you get it right.  In a theatrical setting -- actors on a stage, instrumentalists behind the proscenium -- there is no such thing as a do-over.  With a conductorless ensemble, there is an added layer of danger. But when you hear Orpheus's gifted musicians, working together in concert, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

I was there for the world premiere of a former student, Shuying Li, who had been commissioned to write a new work for the ensemble. But I also brought with me an intense curiosity, to see how Orpheus would navigate the intricate music of Handel, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, without a leader in front.

Which is only partly true -- Orpheus does have a leader in their concertmaster, which, as is their custom, rotates from piece to piece (as with the other string principals), and so there were four different leaders for this program.  But when you have two to three dozen players on stage, it's difficult for all of them to have regular contact with the first chair violinist. The Orpheus gestalt is to apply "chamber music principles to an orchestral setting." Having different leaders over the course of one program gives them an additional challenge: for each piece, the players must get used to performing under the leadership of a new concertmaster.  Except for the Emerson Quartet and a few other ensembles, most chamber groups do not change leaders midway through a program.  It's a high wire act.

Orpheus is a model for other conductorless ensembles that have formed more recently, such as Les Dissonances in Paris, founded in 2004; A Far Cry (2007), in Boston; and Kaleidoscope (2014), in Los Angeles.  What these groups have in common is a direct relationship with their audiences, who feel more connected to the players and the music they perform.

I have to come clean: a review of an Orpheus concert should never come from a conductor. But I thoroughly enjoyed this performance, from start to finish.  That I was listening to New York's finest freelance instrumentalists was never in doubt. Right from the start, the music was electric, played with radiance and great precision. Throughout the evening, however, there were minor issues that, in all likelihood, only a very few in the audience would have noticed.

In the opening Allegro of Handel's Water Music, the horns played behind the ensemble, and I could tell from their position on stage that they were unaware of it; it's a problem with every orchestra, the distance between the winds and strings, and the resulting lag time, which a conductor can more readily spot and easily correct than a concertmaster can.

But at the onset of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto, with the masterful Truls Mork as soloist, the ensemble problems were in high relief. I could tell that the woodwinds could not hear Mork, and in some spots when he rushed, the lag was even more evident. The concern was etched on the concertmaster's face, as she tried to help the winds, beating out conducting patterns with her violin from her left shoulder.  The first raison d'etre for any orchestra, conductor or no conductor, is to get the four families of instruments -- strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion -- to play together.

Many years ago, the ensemble's distinguished bassoonist, Frank Morelli, and I had a heated conversation about the merits of Orpheus, in which he told me that the orchestra really shines when they are playing music with a soloist, because taking out the middleman (i.e., the conductor) makes it a more intimate, and musically satisfying experience.  A beautiful example of this occurred late in the slow movement of the Shostakovich, where the clarinet and celesta were in clear contact with one another.  It was as visually thrilling as it was aurally.

Over time, Morelli's point has been validated, as more and more baton-led orchestras have invited pianist/conductors to perform with them sans chef, in which the solo work is conducted from the piano. Violinists Joshua Bell and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg have served as music directors of the Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields and New Century Chamber Orchestra, respectively, simultaneously playing and conducting from the front.  But it's one thing for a violinist to lead an ensemble in Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or a pianist to lead a Mozart concerto; it's another thing entirely when a solo cellist plays Shostakovich without someone holding on to the reins.

For Shuying Li's Out Came the Sun, inspired by events surrounding the birth of her first child, the composer had an advantage over Handel and Shostakovich: her piece was written with the knowledge that it would be played by a conductorless ensemble.  (Readers may scoff at this suggestion, pointing out that Water Music would have been played with no conductor, but Handel would have been leading from the harpsichord, just as Haydn did with his symphonies.)

The Orpheus players were clearly in love with Shuying's music, which they played with force, delicacy and passion. The piece begins dramatically, with four quick hammer strokes, on two different augmented triads which, in Shuying's hands, sounded like modern consonance.  She was savvy with her choice of instrumentation -- strings with seven additional players: woodwind quintet, timpani and celesta. The music had an inexorable pull towards the poignant lullaby near the end, played on the celesta, before the music eventually died away.  The piece is ravishing, and was ravishingly played.  The audience -- which had clapped in between movements throughout the evening, and which had produced a coughing chorus at the start of Mork's hauntingly beautiful cadenza -- was rapt and quiet throughout.  For such a young composer, it was astonishing to hear music of such elegance and maturity.

Closing the program was Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite, an Orpheus tour de force. For this work, Liang-Ping How was the concertmaster and leader of a solo string quintet, featured by Stravinsky throughout the suite. Mr. How and the other four soloists played with charm and finesse, and in the penultimate movement, Vivo, the spiccato strings sizzled. (I've never heard it played better.) Throughout the performance, I kept thinking of how much Stravinsky detested conductors (even the ones who were good to him), and how most of his music post-Le Sacre is written in a manner that takes decision making and interpretive skills away from the conductor, rendering the maestro into little more than a traffic cop.  And so it was with this Pulcinella, handled deftly by Orpheus. The winds paused a bit too long between variations in the Gavotta, resulting in more unwanted applause. Earlier in the piece, after passing the melody to the bassoon, the *horn did not know that his time with the tune was temporary, and Mr. Morelli, who played all of his virtuosic bassoon solos with great panache, was drowned out.  But these were bagatelles in an otherwise captivating performance.

Orpheus will never have need of a conductor, but they would do well to have someone out in the hall during rehearsals, with score in hand, acting as a kind of stage director/producer/consultant, when needed.  If Truls Mork had been placed further upstage, between the front stands of violas and second violins, rather than down on the edge of the stage, in a world of his own, then the winds would have had better sound contact with Mork.

Still, the evening with Orpheus was, for me, one of the most enjoyable orchestra concerts I have attended in a long time. I'm just sorry I waited so long to hear them. From an audience point of view, it is thrilling not just to hear Orpheus perform, but to see everyone of its members playing, with undisturbed sight lines -- without the distraction of a conductor.

* at figure 6

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