Sunday, October 19, 2014

With the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the maestro is plural and makes musical sounds — no gesturing podium boss necessary

Having admired some of its recordings for many years, I looked forward to my first Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert largely because I had to test the truth of what I'd been hearing. Of course, there was also the draw of Jonathan Biss as piano soloist at Saturday night's Palladium concert.

Recording technology has permitted so many nudges toward perfection over the years that only the concert experience can allay suspicions that a lot of the excellence we hear has been engineered.

The Orpheus in fact does produce ensemble excellence without a conductor — every musician is engaged with the music and reflects well-practiced agreement on articulation, tempo, and dynamics. Performances that cohere and have vitality are the result.

Bloomington-born Jonathan Biss has often collaborated with Orpheus.
When these qualities are linked to what a top-drawer soloist has to offer, the result can be stunning. So it was with the Biss/Orpheus performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37.

Above all, it represented a demonstrative leap off the page of scholarship: In "The Concerto: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg details the work's genesis, citing sketches as early as 1796,  with most of it completed in 1800. But because it was first published in 1804, the C minor concerto has usually been tagged with a "middle Beethoven" sticker.

The tripartite division of Beethoven's musical career has been pretty powerful over the decades, influencing description of other composers' careers that are even harder to divide into early, middle, and late. As Steinberg points out, "the patronizing treatment sometimes accorded to 'early Beethoven'" has escaped this work because a mere four years after its completion Beethoven was turning out or working on such middle-period monuments as the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas.

Beethoven as rising star
Performances of the Third Concerto in all its faux-middle-period glory are not hard to encounter. My Claudio Arrau LP version is suitably imposing, carrying the grandeur indelibly associated with Beethoven's immortality. Imagine my delight, then, to take in a concert performance sparkling with youthful bravura.

Biss lent a light, frisky approach to the music, with just enough earnestness to avoid recasting it in lightweight, revisionist terms. Any bearing down (as in the first movement) was of the sort that talented young people trying to make an impression in any field typically exhibit.

The performance displayed the work as full of both promise and achievement. It seemed to present Beethoven saying "You'll be hearing more great things from me" rather than "Too bad for you if you can't bask in  my self-evident greatness." As played here, the piece expresses the bravado and self-confidence of a young musician in his late 20s who knows he's good and is ready to cast aside provincial origins and present his ready-for-prime-time calling card to the imperial capital.

No wonder the Beethoven portrait I've inserted in this post is not prominent among our images of the composer — those iconic ones with their scowling, deeply lined face and unruly, graying hair. Young Beethoven is often patronized partly because the standard of greatness he set for composers seems to belong to an older man. Biss and his Orpheus colleagues brought to the fore the young virtuoso who chafed under the tutelage of Haydn, the master composer he had sought out upon moving to Vienna, as well as the bumptious, furtively handsome musician barely aware that deafness would soon rob him of normal social connections.

The concert opened with a polished reading of Rossini's Overture to "La Cambiale di Matrimonio" (The Marriage Contract), notable for some sprightly woodwind playing and a tender horn solo.

Ensemble interaction with careful attention to color contrasts got a fuller display in the last piece on the program, Francis Poulenc's "Sinfonietta."

This four-movement work is suffused with the carefree quality, bordering on glibness, of Poulenc the sensuous boulevardier. The chattering of the winds and the nervous rhythmic energy at times added up to a similarly energetic but somehow calmer, less sentimental way of taking in Parisian life than a more famous evocation of that urban scene, George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Preceding the Poulenc was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's "Prlogue and Variations." Written during the first flush of her fame — she had just won the 1983 Pulitizer Prize for her Symphony No. 1 — the 1984 piece for string orchestra was recorded by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra 30 years ago next month as part of a New World Records package also including the first symphony and "Celebration," an ISO commission to commemorate its move from Clowes Hall to the Circle Theatre.

Too bad the Palladium program book couldn't have had more localized notes about Zwilich. They might also have included the record jacket's fuller description of Prologue and Variations. The opening movement bears a literary title because it sets out an introduction to the musical ideas explored in the four variations that follow. The variations build more upon the "characters" suggested by the Prologue than upon the notes themselves.

The clarity with which Zwilich carries out this plan was something the audience had to discern on its own. Here was a case when a composer's words could have actually advanced understanding of an unfamiliar work. Fortunately, it's easy to catch on to Zwilich on first hearing.

The Orpheus (following its usual practice of using a different concertmaster for each piece played) laid out the Andante misterioso Prologue with care. Its haunting atmosphere returns to round out the piece at the end, after fast, slow, then fast variations have intervened. There's fetching interplay among the string sections, with nothing too tangled to follow. A distinct emotional profile was given to each section.

In a model of the kind of music journalism that has become increasingly rare, Tim Page wrote about Zwilich for the New York Times Magazine nearly 30 years ago, quoting her extensively. "It is not enough to manipulate abstract forms and ideas," she told him. "A composer must also provide color, thrust, and purpose, allowing a work to unfold gradually over a length of time. As such, composition is both a written and a performing art — it must sound."

That credo exactly suits Prologue and Variations and the way the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed it Saturday evening.