Sojourn in the Wonderful World of Brahms with Gil Shaham and Orpheus CO

Last night I had a delightful excursion into the wonder world of Johannes Brahms with violinist Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.  This was the first concert in the Orpheus series at Carnegie for the 2011-12 season.  Orpheus is the conductorless chamber orchestra that takes on the most exacting technical challenges in performing work based on the principles of chamber music, and one doesn't necessarily expect to hear them performing the Brahms Violin Concerto, Op. 77.  But then, they frequently play works that conventional wisdom would insist require a conductor at the helm for a cohesive, meaningful performance, and they usually prove the conventional wisdom wrong, as they did last night.

It helps, of course, that Brahms scored this piece relatively lightly, by comparison to his normal scoring for his symphonies.  No trombones or tuba or exotic low-pitched woodwinds, no percussion beyond the tympani, and a score that can be effectively projected, even in a big hall like Carnegie, by a chamber orchestra sized string body…  And, in Shaham, the kind of soloist who is willing to enter fully into the enterprise of playing a core part of the violin concerto repertory as a piece of chamber music.  It worked beautifully because, as always with Orpheus, the very challenge of performing without a conductor means that every musician on the stage takes individual responsibility – there can be no passing the buck – and everybody is listening intently to everybody else and channeling their energy and their emotions through the collective. 

I've never heard a bad concert performance by Gil Shaham, and I never expect to.  He has all the technique one needs to play the challenging core violin concerto repertory, but the extra thing he brings is the kind of extroverted enthusiasm that makes it a pleasure to hear him.  I recall a transformative performance of the Bartok 2nd Violin Concerto many years ago with Boulez and the NY Philharmonic, a performance that totally sold me on a work to which I had previously been indifferent.  I've also enjoyed his splendid Mozart with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra.  And now, to Brahms. 

I think the adagio second movement was the high point for me.  There was so much joy and love and nostalgia (Brahms's slow movements for me are packed full of a sort of nostalgic feeling) and tenderness in this performance that it was as if the entire hall, not just the assembled musicians, were all breathing as one.  If the first movement was slightly less exalted, perhaps it is because it is just more "formal" than the second movement, introducing a slight emotional distance – and there was the slight distraction early in the movement of Shaham's foot-stamping at times.  Perhaps subsconsciously he wasn't fully comfortable with the lack of a conductor to mark time for the ensemble, but as he got further into the movement his foot quieted down.  I suspect this was all subconscious on his part, but I found myself wishing they had put a little throw-rug down for him to stand on….!  The finale was full of the requisite swagger.  It was the kind of performance where you wish it wouldn't end, where the sound of concluding chords seems to come all too soon.  The response to the audience's ovation was a brief encore – Shaham's arrangement for violin, strings and clarinet of a charming Kreisler waltz tune.

The Brahms performance so swept me away that my memory of the first half of the concert is not all that sharp.  They opened with Mendelssohn's Fair Melusine Overture, which was rendered so smoothly that it seemed to fly by.  Then there was a world premiere of an Orpheus commission, a brief piece by Cynthia Wong titled "Memoriam."  The composer was working on this when her father passed away and it turned into a memorial to him.  I found it pleasant on first hearing.  Ms Wong has a genuine gift for orchestration, but I would want to hear it again before saying much more.  She creates a contemplative mood most of the time, and the harmonies are sweet, but not much else stuck with me from first hearing.

Prior to intermission, Orpheus played Josef Haydn's Symphony in D, Hob. I:73, nicknamed "The Hunt" because of the rustic finale.  Orpheus has the measure of Haydn and produces clean, spirited readings whenever they present his music.  The high point for many, of course, would by Haydn's humorous conclusion, as the presto finale winds up to what sound like final chords, the audience bursts into applause, and then the orchestra starts playing again, winding down the tension to a quiet close.  No need for the audience to feel abashed about clapping.  Clearly, Haydn expected it – an early example of "audience participation" as part of a piece.

So this was a good season-starter for Orpheus.  (And a hint to me to seek out Shaham's Brahms concerto recording with Claudio Abbado, although I suspect it will sound different from the collaboration with the wizards of Orpheus.)

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