Tonight Orpheus Chamber Orchestra played the first concert in their Carnegie Hall Series for 2010/11. They offered Schubert's Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Berg's Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson.
I thought this was a magnificent concert. The Schubert was right up their alley – a work that thrives on the kind of integrated chamber music approach that this conductorless orchestra follows. This is not a work that gets many outings from the major orchestras, most likely because it would sound terribly inflated with a full-size symphony orchestra. After all, Schubert composed these early symphonies of his teen years for home performance by a small group of friends.
The Berg was astonishingly beautiful. These are three movements that the composer selected from his longer work for string quartet and arranged for a full string orchestra. The Orpheus performance emphasized the romanticism of the piece. Even though there were only 17 performers in the ensemble, they produced a big, rich sound that really filled Carnegie Hall in the louder moments. As in the Schubert, I thought here that the chamber music approach paid big dividends in a performance that reflected the intense concentration of every performer.
Finally, in the Beethoven, Ohlsson and Orpheus presented a very romantic conception of this concerto, which sits on the cusp between the classical and romantic periods. My favorite recent recording, by Till Fellner, emphasizes the classical aspects of the piece, with sharply defined rhythms and an emphasis on clarity, balance, and clean lines. By contrast, I thought the edges were rounded in this performance, rhythms a bit softer, and a strong emphasis on the lyrical character of the piece. Either approach works well, and this was very well done in its way. Ohlsson is constantly surprising with his delicacy of touch, and this was especially evident in his encore, the Chopin Waltz Op. 18, a thrice-familiar piece that came up sounding very new, very individualistic, very dramatic.
So, congratulations to Orpheus on a magnificent launch to the season. Next in this series is an imaginative program on December 4 – Barber's Capricorn Concerto, Britten's Les Illuminations (with soprano Kate Royal), and Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which should be very interesting to hear in this chamber music fashion. The conductor? Well, it's the orchestra and it's about the music….