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Smash Opening

By B.A. Nilsson

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 15

Troy 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.

Orpheus 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.

The Haydn 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.

The second 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.

Who were 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.

His three-movement 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.

Even 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 pizzicato bass.

Cellos 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.

Half 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.

But beginning 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.

The sprightly 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.

And long 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.

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