Orpheus is the celebrated conductorless chamber orchestra, in which a core group of players works out the interpretation of each piece. It is also a fearless group that is ready to tackle the most intricate works that one would never guess could be performed without leadership from a podium, and produces flawless performances. Such was the case tonight in Carnegie Hall, as they went through a varied program of music by Schumann, Prokofiev, Penderecki and Brahms, with Vadim Gluzman as soloist in Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto, Op. 63. In a nice sort of arch pattern, Schumann, the mentor, and Brahms, his mentee, opened and closed, with 20th century masters occupying the center position, to produce a nice symmetry to the program.
Schumann's overture to Hermann and Dorothea, Op. 136, is what remained from his abandoned project to write an opera based on a poem by Goethe. The piece is not in the active repertoire because it is, at bottom, not particularly memorable, but it provides a good workout for the orchestra and some fun moments mingling the Marseillaise with Schumann's original materials, and Orpheus rose to the occasion, confirming its reputation for exploring beyond the standard repertory in authoritative performances.
Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto is a great lyrical effusion, with gorgeous harmonies, achingly beautiful melodies, and a rhythmically intricate, Spanish-tinged finale, that I would not have dreamt could have been securely performed without a conductor due to the rapidly shifting metrics of the notation at fast tempi, but Orpheus and Gluzman carried it off without a hitch and without compromising on the tempi. After Gluzman, the hero of this performance was percussionist Maya Gunji, who managed the rapid movement between various instruments without a hitch, covering parts that would have absorbed the efforts of two or three performers in a standard symphony orchestra performance of this piece, and her bass drum playing was undoubtedly a big part of the glue that held that final movement together. But that is not to detract from Gluzman's achievement here. He really gets "inside" this music and sings it on the fiddle with great passion and accuracy.
Gluzman played an unaccompanied encore that conflated passages from J.S. Bach's 3rd Partita with variations on the Latin hymn Dies Irae…. I speculated it might be by Schnittke or Ligeti, but no announcement was made and a quick visit to the Carnegie Hall website after the concert provided no information. (Any reader of this who knows what it was is welcome to supply the information!)
After intermission, we had a Serenade for String Orchestra by Krzysztof Penderecki which was, for me, the absolute highlight of the evening. Penderecki is a non-conformist who takes pride in doing the unexpected. In this case, that is to write a multi-movement serenade that lacks a fast finale. He begins with a moderately-pace Passacaglia, follows with a slow Larghetto. Then one would anticipate a fast-paced finale to finish things off, but Penderecki is content to conclude with the slow fade-out of his Larghetto. I found the Passacaglia to have a somewhat mechanistic sound, but the Larghetto was gorgeous, with long lyrical lines and luscious harmonies, sensitively rendered by the Orpheus string players, many of whom seemed quite visibly moved by this profound movement.
Finally, the Brahms. I am used to hearing this played by a larger orchestra, and I thought a few more strings, especially cellos and basses to balance the expanded viola section (no violins are called for, so several Orpheus violinists joined with the violas) and the strong wind complement would have been helpful. But Orpheus manages to make a big sound with their chamber-sized group to fill Carnegie Hall quite comfortably, and the performance was fully satisfying in every other respect. This was a piece that emphasized the excellence of their wind players in particular.
Orpheus is without doubt one of the treasures of New York. Its next Carnegie concert, on March 19, continues the pattern of mixing familiar works with explorations – in this case, Fred Lerdahl's "Waves" and Albert Roussel's Concerto for Small Orchestra, mingled with Mozart's D Minor Piano Concerto (Rudolf Buchbinder) and Mozart's great Eb Major Symphony, K. 543. In terms of proportion of time, this will definitely be a "mostly Mozart" concert, but with bright contrasts from later composers, an Orpheus formula that usually produces a very satisfying evening in the concert hall.