With its artistic director being a rotating position (currently held by clarinetist Alan Kay), the players switching desks with virtually every piece and having a say in the music to be performed, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a model of democratic, large-ensemble music making like few others.
Yet as commendable as that sort of group collaboration is, the actual results reveal frequent divergences from “all for one and one for all” opinions that largely leave the music in the category of good rather than great. More’s the pity because an abundance of talent is emphatically evident and OCO’s enthusiasm for the repertoire can be felt in every bar.
In many ways, Mendelssohn’s infrequently heard Nocturno for Winds (in this instance, along with a double bass, Jordan Frazier aptly doing the honours) was the most consistently satisfying work on the program. From the opening measures, the ensemble produced an appropriately mellow, homogeneous sound that positively radiated throughout Carnegie Hall. The transition to the main section worked well, but as the spritely theme flew into the Dress Circle, the lack of weight to the object of the theme’s repeated notes turned the overall direction on its head—somewhat akin to putting the emphasis on the wrong sylLAble; the final chord was a nickel short of an at-one conclusion.
When the seating was rejigged, the winds were in two tiers on risers (flutes, oboes, clarinets on lower; horns and bassoons on the upper) save and except for the trumpets, which were seated on the floor near the tympani. For the Schumann cello concerto, soloist Alisa Weilerstein was also on a raised platform. This entire seating plan produced a very curious “mix”, with the cello nearly swamping her orchestral colleagues, making them appear/sound less present than they must have been on stage. Perhaps an “everyone on the floor” policy might take better advantage of the hall’s famed acoustics.
Weilerstein gave an inspired, passionate performance navigating the near constant ebb and flow with considerable skill and only a few pitch blemishes, and—on occasion—a wider-than-to-my-taste vibrato. The transition to “Langsam” was magical while the finale was very lively indeed. Once again from the now full orchestra, the ensemble was sharp but seldom razor edge and the collective inner tension—a hallmark of the composer—was too often MIA.
In my experience, I have never seen an encore demanded by the applause of the players rather than the rapture of the patrons. Nonetheless, a helping of solo J.S. Bach was served up to the delight of most.
Anton Webern’s ground-shifting Five Movements for Strings was given a rough ride from the intrusions of 21st century a-musical sounds that he never experienced. The at times forceful, then delicate movements for strings had to compete with sirens wailing on the street, the subway rattling below, a cellphone whose owner a few rows away couldn’t find “mute” and the “bang” of an orchestra-level door. It is disruptions like these that threaten to empty halls in favour of at-home sound systems more than concertgoers’ familiarity with the repertoire and marvellous feeling of shared moments of excellence that threaten concert life.
Following an overly long verbal advertisement for next season by Kay, Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 was frequently a marvel of glow and warmth that belied the cold, wet night outside. More breath was needed to truly realize the genius of the young composer’s sense of style and balance; the captivating harmonic shifts—especially in the “Andante”—were left for another day.
One pined for the likes of George Szell or Karm Böhm to take the reins and drive these commendable musicians to heights yet unscaled. JWR