Last night, the Orchestra of St. Luke's presented their first subscription concert of the season at Carnegie Hall. Usually they have a guest conductor leading the ensemble, but for this program violinist Christian Tetzlaff was the "leader" for those pieces that were not specifically written for solo violin and orchestra, and the group functioned without a visible leader for the two pieces in which he played the solos. The result was something approaching a typical Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert — but not quite.
Orpheus is premised on the idea of a chamber orchestra performing as a genuine chamber ensemble where the members work everything out ahead of time and then play as a genuine chamber ensemble without a conductor. St. Luke's, a group of approximately the same size, normally uses a conductor. Is it possible for a group without a long-time systematic commitment to conductorless ensemble performance to provide the kind of well-integrated performance that Orpheus normally gives? I would render a mixed verdict on that question, at least on the basis of last night's concert.
They began with Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216. Tetzlaff takes an approach to Mozart that emphasizes grace, lyricism, and beauty, a bit to the detriment of drama and guts. One can perform the opening Allegro of this concerto as a jaunty, extraverted play, but that was not Tetzlaff's game. Instead, there were rounded corners, warm lyricism, melting into phrases…. It was all quite beautiful, but lacking the guts that I like in this movement. The Adagio worked well with this approach, being an extended lyrical song of the type Mozart could do so well, but then the finale – Rondeau (allegro) – once again seemed to me a bit more restrained than I would have liked. This is not to fault the soloist or the group in terms of their technical accomplishment, although I felt that balances, at least from my front balcony seat, were a bit off at times, the soloist being so integrated into the sound of the strings that solo lines were a bit difficult to discern a few times.
But the following piece, Arnold Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, Op. 4, in the version for string orchestra, provided an exciting contrast. For this piece, Tetzlaff sat as principal of the first violin section, occasionally gesturing with his hands at points where delicate unanimity was sought, but usually just tending to his playing, and of course playing the solo violin lines that survived the transcription process from Schoenberg's original version for a handful of string players. In this piece, there was no smoothing over the sharp edges. Intense drama, dynamic extremes, and much hauling about of tempo were the order of the day, and I thought they did this quite well without the intervention of the conductor. I am used to a more lush sound than this string ensemble (10 first violins, 8 seconds, 6 violas, 4 cellos and 3 basses) could produce — I learned the piece from a recording by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic string section, so you can well imagine… — but apart from that I found the performance very satisfying and absorbing.
After intermission, we had a novelty, a brief suite for violin and string orchestra written by Jan Sibelius at the end of his compositional career. He designated it as Op. 117, but withheld it from publication and it did not see the light of day until well after his death. The program notes said this was the Carnegie Hall premiere. Tetzlaff stood amidst the strings and gave a brilliant performance, especially in the final movement, a moto perpetuo that was light as the air. The entire thing went by in about 8 minutes and seems a charming trifle, although here and there one can discern distinguishing marks of the Finnish master.
Finally, we had Josef Haydn's Symphony No. 80, which struck me as generic mid-period Haydn, not in the masterpiece category of his Paris or London symphonies, but of course artfully put together. Here I thought a conductor might have made a difference, as the performance struck me as generic in the same sense as the music. A conductor might bring individual interpretive touches that would distinguish the piece in some way. Once again, no technical fault of the musicians, who gave an excellent rendition, but I just found the piece less interesting than anything else on the program — which is saying something, since I am a big fan of Haydn.
However, on balance this was an interesting mix of pieces, although one could argue that on a mixed full-length program there might be room for something written more recently than 1929 (the Sibelius, latest-written piece on the program). Certainly the event confirms my admiration for Tetzlaff, whose recordings I cherish, as well as a vivid memory of his performance of Mozart in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with the Bremen German Chamber Symphony many summers ago during my brief teaching sojourn in that city….