The Miraculous Martin Frost with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Last night I attended Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s second concert in its 2013-14 subscription series at Carnegie Hall, with soloist Martin Frost in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

That one-line is enough to communicate that it was a fabulous concert, because Frost is fabulous, and so is Orpheus CO!

I heard Frost play this concerto with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra not too long ago, followed by the same encore he played last night, his brother’s arrangement of klezmer tunes for clarinet and string orchestra.  And both times I found the experience thrilling.  Frost sings compellingly through his black plastic tube!  He uses a basset clarinet, providing the range for which Mozart composed this concerto, eliminating the awkwardness of breaking of musical lines necessitated by the limited range of the modern Bb clarinet that is normally used in this piece.  But beyond this technical issue, Frost takes the piece to new levels of expressiveness.  His ability to play softly with full tone, for example, provokes new depths of meaning in the heavenly adagio movement, and his brisk tempo in the finale challenged the strings of Orpheus – who met the challenge with flair in their fast scalar passages.  Frost fit right in with Orpheus’s chamber music (conductorless) approach, although he used quite a bit of body language to communicate his ideas to the orchestra, both when he was playing and when he was not.

The excitement of Frost and Orpheus in the Mozart concerto should not be taken to put the rest of the concert in the shade.  Orpheus did a glorious job on Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F, Op. 6, No. 2, part of an extended set of concerti that the orchestra recorded years ago for DG.  These days this repertory has been largely left to early  music groups playing with gut strings and lower, early-music tuning.  It is refreshing to hear it reappropriated by a modern instrumental group that can provide the kind of full-bodied sound that many of us grew up associating with Handel.  Of course their performance is informed by the early music movement and doesn’t indulge in the kind of overly-romantic interpretations of Handel that were common early in the 20th century.  (I have recordings of concerti from this set by Koussevitzky and Toscanini, so I can attest to how things used to sound!)  Orpheus’ approach marks a nice compromise between the old-fashioned richly-voiced string sound, and the contemporary view of correct 18th century practice.  Any way you look at it, this was a gorgeous performance.

After intermission, we heard Irving Fine’s “Serious Song: A Lament for String Orchestra.”  Fine, a promising composer who died in his 40s (1914-1962), has not received his due from orchestras and audiences, but more performances like this would certainly help.  I found the piece intensely moving, even though I did not find the melodic material with which Fine was working to be particularly compelling.  This was more about orchestra texture and mood.  I suspect the work would make a different impression with a larger string body than Orpheus presents, but they never sound underpowered in Carnegie Hall.  I have three recordings of this in my collection, but this is the first time I’ve heard it live, and it makes a rather stronger impression in a live performance, specially the breathtaking ending, which held the audience spellbound.

Orpheus concluded the concert with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A Minor, K. 201, one of the few “early” Mozart symphonies that received a fair amount of play in the early 20th century.  (Toscanini performed it, while ignoring most of the other symphonies predating No. 35, for example.)  I thought the performance was excellent but not unusual in any way.  In other words, up to the high standards that Orpheus regularly achieves in Mozart, who is undoubtedly one of their collective favorite composers, to judge by the number of times they perform his music.  Their performance sounded – as the best Orpheus performances do – like good friends sitting down to indulge in an old favorite, basking in the felicitous harmonic turns, glorying in the triumphal moments, and expressing collective affection for the gentle andante that is the heart of the piece.

So this was an excellent experience, and I came floating out of the hall humming the final Mozart. . .  The next Orpheus subscription program at Carnegie Hall will be on January 25, an all-Beethoven concert including Coriolanus Overture, Symphony No. 2, and the Emperor Concerto with pianist Nobujuki Tsujii, the famed Van Cliburn competition laureate.  A great way to usher in the new year….

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