Last night I attended the first concert for this season’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra series at Carnegie Hall. The OCO, which operates without a conductor, performed nine of Johannes Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, originally written for vocal quartet and piano duo but orchestrated by the composer, a set of variations for piano and orchestra by jazzman Brad Mehldau, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The juxtaposition of works on this program was a bit unfair to Mehldau, putting him in competition with one of the greatest symphonic compositions by one of the greatest of all composers. And so it proved last night, as I found Mr. Mehldau’s piece to be bland and overextended and much outweighed in quality and impact by the Beethoven.
Although I thought the Brahms dances were lovely and played with much grace by the orchestra, I would question selecting them to open the season. These pieces struck me as slight, almost to the extent of being background music rather than concert pieces calculated to hold an audience’s attention. Perhaps they would make a lovely interlude between two heavier works, but they struck me as too insubstantial to usher in a new season in Carnegie Hall. They were conceived by Brahms to animate poetry, and music so conceived sometimes struggles to stand on its own without the words, even when arranged for instrumental performance by the composer. I suspect Brahms did this for the money, not out of any great inner compulsion to orchestrate these pieces. On the other hand, Brahms was notorious for burning lots of manuscripts that he judged not up to his rigorous standards, so that these survived suggests that this hyper-self-critical composer thought well of them.
My previous experience with Brad Mehldau was a solo piano recital he gave years ago as part of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series at Washington Irving High School. My reaction then was that he was a fluent, graceful pianist whose music fell into predictable patterns without exciting great interest on my part. I had much the same reaction last night. I’m trying not to let my previous experience with his music prejudice me, and I have to reiterate that I find him a pleasingly fluent pianist, although I thought his playing was more effective in his brief solo encore, which seemed to range further in terms of dynamics and venturesome harmony than the main piece did. Perhaps the problem is that the theme he chose for his variations was not particularly interesting or memorable, although that problem has not stood in the way of the greatest variation writers who could take a negligible scrap of melody and stretch it into a masterpiece of music variety. I thought the orchestration was skillfully done, however. Certainly the man has talent. I think if he revised the piece to be shorter it would be more effective. A genius like Bach (Goldberg Variations) or Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) or Brahms (Paganini Variations) can sustained interest in a variation set over an extended period of time, but this piece – asserted in the program book to run about 37 minutes — struck me as just too long.
The Beethoven! Wow! There are a handful of works in the history of music that mark quantum leaps in changing the conversation, and this is one of them. (Another, whose centennial we celebrate this year, is Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.) Surely one can hear some of the seeds of this work in the previous two symphonies, but somehow this symphony is speaking a new language, reaching heights of drama and intensity far beyond what Beethoven had previously done, and surpassing in this respect the work of his most illustrious immediate predecessors on the Vienna musical scene, Mozart and Haydn.
Furthermore, this is probably one of the first symphonies that most people would suggest needs a conductor to hold things together, manage instrumental balances and transitional passages, and impose an overall structural vision. But the OCO would reject such a suggestion, and their performance last night was not lacking in any of these respects. Balances were deftly handled, transitional passages showed no signs of strain, and the performance had an overall dramatic arc and logic that were most compelling. This was a fast-paced performance (no first-movement repeat, which was a smart move given how late the concert was running), and the OCO is a virtuoso band that can play this music fast without it seeming rushed or strained. I could have wished for a few extra desks in each of the string sections to make a greater impact in the big moments, but the ear adjusts, dynamics are relative, and where it really counted in the heart of the great funeral march and in the final peroration of the finale, OCO did not come up short in terms of volume and amplitude of sound. (There is one particularly lush string chord in the adagio that always gives me chills, and OCO nailed it with a rich, thick, well-accented chord that sounded like a much bigger string section.) The three horn players made an imposing sound in the trio of the scherzo, and all the wind soloists performed their big solos impeccably.
On top of this excellent performance, we had a display of great professionalism in the face of adversity from the first and second chair viola players during the adagio. A string snapped on the first chair’s instrument; a quick swap took place with the second chair, who played along on three strings until an opportune moment; then he reached behind the music on the stand to pull out a package with a replacement string (is it so common for string players to have replacement strings ready for emergency use on their stands??) and restring the instrument and tune it, quite rapidly with a minimum of fuss; then, after “playing it in,” he swapped it back to the first chair at another opportune moment when the violas had a few beats of rest. All of this was done so unobtrusively that I suspect here were members of the orchestra who may not have even been aware that it was happening. I followed the entire drama with my opera glasses (sitting in Row A in the balcony) and was very impressed at how efficiently they handled it.
Although I felt a bit let down by the first half of the concert, the Eroica swept me away with its excellence and excitement, and I consider OCO well-launched for the new season. I’m eagerly anticipating their next Carnegie Hall concert on December 7. Martin Frost will perform the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, one of that composer’s greatest (and latest) works, and the program will end with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, a work whose obvious merit led to its regular performance back in the early middle years of the 20th century by old-fashioned conductors such as Toscanini, Walter and Koussevitzky who otherwise eschewed all but the last few Mozart symphonies (35, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41). The concert begins with a Handel Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 2), and will include Irving Fine’s “Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra.” OCO pitches this as being to honor the late composer on his upcoming centenary, but I would also think it would be an appropriate memorial for December 7, the date on which we mark the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the United States’ entrance into World War II.