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A Perfect Pairing

by B.A. Nilsson on May 4, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Arabella Steinbacher
Troy Chromatic Concerts, April 28

Burrow inside the first movement of one of Mozart’s violin concertos and you’ll be amazed at the intricacies of effect that lurk within seemingly simple passages. Little dramas abound, reminding us that whether lyrics were involved or not, he was always writing operas. Violinist Arabella Steinbacher (pictured)  closed the first half of Thursday’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra program with a work of a very un-Mozartean mood: Karl Hartmann’s 1939 Concerto funebre. But I’m proposing that it served as the opening of a meta-concerto that spanned the intermission and included second and third movements by Mozart. Bear with me.

Mozart is one of the most profound spiritual forebears of music. Whether you’re writing stuff that’s atonal, polyrhythmic or left to chance, if it dances—as music should—there’s something from Mozart in it. Hartmann’s concerto definitely sings, but it does so gently and elegiacally, as the solo violin phrases in the slow opening demonstrate.

Written in 1939, the piece laments the evils that befell Czechoslovakia under Hitler’s regime. The German-born Hartmann found a voice for this piece that puts me in mind of Shostakovich without the smirking: truly affecting lamentations for most of the piece, a sardonic allegro the third of its four uninterrupted movements. As a display of tone and interpretive emotion, Steinbacher couldn’t have chosen a better piece. What virtuosity is required rarely is put on display, but the cumulative effect needed not only a sound soloist but also an orchestra that plays with one mind—a hallmark of this conductor less ensemble.

They opened with their wind players on display, the equivalent of two wind quintets with reinforcement from extra bassoons to play Richard Strauss’s youthful but still autumnal-sounding Serenade in E-flat Major, written when the composer was 17. You can spot a Strauss piece through its winds voicing, and this work already displays those distinguishing characteristics. And the Orpheus players made easy work of the challenges of blend and pitch.

With the wind forces cut down but augmented by trumpets, tympani and strings, the orchestra closed the concert with Haydn’s final symphony, no. 104, which finds the composer still in excellent humor and playing fast and loose with symphonic form.

An introduction that threatens to go on too long is suddenly interrupted by an easygoing allegro, and we’re off on a four-movement journey with delightful twists. The menuet gently thwarts your expectations; the finale is a peasant dance with bagpipes. The orchestra gave each movement a snappy tempo and played up the dynamic contrasts so that they truly were exciting. A much livelier Haydn than we heard from 50 years ago, when restraint seemed the interpretive order of the day.

Steinbacher opened the second half with the aforementioned Mozart movements: an adagio written as an alternative slow movement for his Violin Concerto No. 5, and a rondo that may have been an alternative last movement from someone else’s concerto. They tied together nicely in this context, and confirmed Steinbacher as a protean fiddler comfortable in any genre.