Orpheus scattershoots across epochs at Spaulding

by Brent Reidy | 1/31/05 6:00am

The concert the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra presented in Spaulding Auditorium this Friday past was unusual for several reasons. The program presented works for half of the ensemble alone, showcasing the winds first and strings second. Also, the concert was a mixture of the canonized Western Art music of Felix Mendelssohn and two pieces of new music. Finally, the Mendelssohn included brilliant pianist Jonathan Biss; this being not at all unusual, until one finds out that Biss is a mere twenty-four years old.

Orpheus has made a name for itself for reasons like those above, and expectedly the concert Friday displayed a fresh, appealing approach to music performance. The group presented Mendelssohn's "Piano Concerto No.2 in D Minor Op. 40" (1837) and "Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 'Italian'" (1833), Erkki-Sven Tr's "Action-Passion-Illusion" (1994) for string orchestra, and Daniel Schnyder's "Concerto for Winds (Some other Blues)" (2004). Additionally, another Mendelssohn piece, the "Scherzo from the Incidental Music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, Op. 61 (1843)" was the encore.

It is no secret that canonized Western Art music rarely shares the stage with new pieces composed in the decade prior. This practice does not have a reason for existence; it is a tradition as unsettlingly normal as the expectation that pieces will always be performed in chronological order. One either goes to a concert to see new music or old, and most of the old pieces tend to be within a century of each other. Orpheus obviously did not follow this convention. Comically, even the first two Mendelssohn pieces were presented in backwards chronological order.

The rationale for the varied program is that Mendelssohn did the same in his day. While he championed one of the earlier "back-to-Bach" movements, he also supported new compositions. And though this reasoning for the interesting program is certainly comforting and cute, the question still remains: Is a mixture of new and old music an intelligent and useful presentation?

Furthermore, in the case of Friday night's program, another question was raised: What does one gain by playing two works hardly more than a decade old, and two works almost 200 years old?

Oddly enough, it seems nothing was gained by this programming decision. However, and more importantly, nothing was lost either. The juxtaposition of chronologically disparate music was not jarring -- rather, the program perfectly displayed the fact that all music shares a common goal and purpose. Music from any time or, if you dare, culture, can be digested along with music from any other. Hopefully programs like this will break ground for more innovative concert choices among other groups in the future. Just imagine that a string quartet program of Joseph Haydn and Gyrgy Ligeti could soon be standard fare instead of faux pas.

As mentioned above, the programming choice was also interesting in that it divided the orchestra in two, highlighting the wind and string sections separately. Director and violinist Ronnie Bauch claims that this "multi-learned" practice encourages better performance as a whole. Regardless of whether or not this is the case, Orpheus played remarkably well, both as a group and within its sections.

Superlative excellence is a distinction that Orpheus has deservedly earned. The group handled both the Mendelssohn and new works with extreme care and intelligence. One could not ask for a more balanced and timbrally pleasing chamber orchestra.

Furthermore, featured guest Jonathan Biss was a highlight of the evening. One might expect a lack of sophistication or refinement from a twenty-four year old pianist. This was not so, as Biss handled Mendelssohn's piano concerto with deep emotional maturity and exceptional skill. One almost forgot Biss young age, until he tried to exit through the wrong door on stage, was a bit confused about bowing protocol and had the audacity to play-conduct the wind section with his left hand when the piano had silent sections. These youthful moments, however, were endearing.

But rather than go on praising the works and Orpheus' interpretation of them which are already so familiar to the general public, it seems fitting to turn to the Schnyder and Tr compositions.

"Concerto for Wind (some other blues)" is described by the composer as "not using jazz in a very specific way" but borrows "sounds from the gospel or jazz tradition." The cherry on top? The piece was "inspired" by John Coltrane.

The "jazz" influence and dedication turned out to be more of an insulting ride on coattails rather than sentimental allusion. A lack of compositional direction paired with masturbatory and juvenile throwbacks to stereotypically idiomatic jazz produced a jumbled mess. At times the piece felt aimless and at the verge of collapse, despite Orpheus's admirable interpretation. The work certainly was entertaining as points, but placing it in a concert hall next to Mendelssohn is the musical equivalent of pairing Pauly Shore's "Biodome" with "Casablanca" for a cinematic double-feature. It is a shame that Orpheus's commissioned composer turned out to be rubbish. Orpheus deserves better.

"Action-Passion-Illusion" was vastly superior. Schnyder's musical vocabulary is filled with modern minimalist technique and also a proclivity for smart, dramatic gestures. While the piece was sometimes rough around the edges, the sheer beauty of the majority of the work won out. Errki-Sven Tr has a talent for dealing with form and evoking emotional response. The climax to the central movement was particularly effective. A very long and peaceful modal section was suddenly shattered by screeching chromatic strings. While I personally wished that the climax was a bit more developed and the dismount back in modality be more graceful, the effect was beautiful nonetheless.