Chromatic Concerts kicked off its 112th concert-presenting
season—it’s 90th in the Troy Music Hall—with as elegant and
feisty an orchestra as they’re likely to present. And the
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra repaid the favor by presenting a
something for everyone program that teased and toyed with
its superannuated audience before finishing with a socko soloist
triumphing in a barnstorming piece of musical fluff.
performs without a conductor; the musicians listen to one
another, look at one another—the sense of communion is easy
to see and especially easy to hear. So even a tried-and-true
piece like Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 came to far more
vivid life than might be expected. Every hairpin of crescendo
and diminuendo added unexpected luster, and it’s only unexpected
because the modern classical orchestra isn’t too often inclined
to take even the easy risk of accentuating the dynamics.
also fit a theme of the evening: Each of the four works was
masquerading as something else. This work masquerades as a
classical symphony even as it slyly breaks the rules. All
of the expected elements are there, but, as was so characteristic
of this composer, they don’t always play out as expected.
movement, for example, an andante, eases into a soft variation
played over a low string drone, convulsively interrupted by
a horn outburst that presaged the “Surprise” symphony. The
mid-menuet trio sounds like a blunder, as if the players weren’t
sure about going back to the movement’s initial theme. These
are moments that (I hope) provoked laughter from audiences
better versed in the music than listeners of today.
given a challenge in the premiere of Paul Moravec’s Brandenburg
Gate, third in a series of six Orpheus commissions of
works inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Stephen
Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis unveiled their creations
during the past two seasons; Moravec modeled his contribution
on the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, but in no way tried
to ape the piece.
work uses the unusual solo ensemble of flute, clarinet, trumpet
and violin, and the players—Susan Palma-Nudel, Kay, Louis
Hanzlik and Renée Jolles, respectively—settled into a confluence
of sound you wouldn’t expect from such disparate timbres.
But not at first. The piece begins with furious tremolo-backed
figurings in the ensemble and fast exchanges among the soloists,
introducing us to the blend of textures before an almost jazzy
sound sets in.
with a syncopated bass and the occasional threat of a hoedown
strain, Moravec’s musical language is too complicated to fall
into predictable territory. Thematically, he played around
with a four-note BACH motto, so it’s not surprising that the
second movement had a slight Shostakovich feel—the Russian
composer was a great fan of that technique. Kay switched to
bass clarinet for an unusually affecting duet with the violin,
a moment mirrored by an answer from flute and trumpet over
and basses began the third movement similarly, bringing in
percussive plucking of all the strings before a smooth segue
to bowing underscored another round of solo exchanges, and
even though this was a very un-Bach-like sound, Moravec’s
architecture was skillful enough to give the complete piece
a feeling every bit as satisfying as his model, a very successful
outcome for this commission.
a century ago, Jacques Ibert was commissioned to write a Mozart
tribute, and the resultant five-minute work is filled with
Mozartean tropes over a typical Ibert amalgam of Gallic harmony
and circus pomp. Frothy and forgettable, it was the perfect
prelude to Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2, an essay
in Rachmaninoff Light with a considerable nod to Chopin.
with a big, Bach-inspired solo passage that pianist Jean-Yves
Thibaudet blazed into with the passionate (and most un-Baroque)
phrasing of Arthur Rubinstein. Big, brassy, and ultimately
quite poetic, the first movement is where the piece really
goes into Rachmaninoff land and sets the ladies sighing.
second movement is a scherzo of unalloyed joy, and grabbed
my ears when I first heard the piece as a teenager. A tympani-punctuated
dialogue between piano and orchestra gives way, in the final
movement, to an over-the-top furioso presto that’s
as compelling a display of piano virtuosity as you’re likely
to see, and Thibaudet was as rip-snorting in this finale as
he was lyrical elsewhere in the piece, beautifully matched
by this sensitive ensemble. The concerto is a sure-fire ovation
getter, and brought the crowd to its feet.
after those Saint-Saëns sounds had receded, I found strains
of the Moravec work still provoking my imagination. You can’t
have a more successful premiere than that.