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Orpheus in the Outer-World

New York
Perelman Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/03/2016 -  
Gioachino Rossini: Overture to La scala di seta
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Fazil Say: Piano Concerto No. 2, “Silk Road”, Opus 4
Josef Haydn: Symphony No. 83 in G Minor “La Poule”

Fazil Say (Pianist), Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

F. Say, Orpheus Orchestra (2015) (© Chris Lee)

This is the second time I heard Fazil Say perform one of the Mozart “Paris” piano concertos with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, but I could listen to him playing Mozart with this group all night long.

With the 21st Concerto last year, he showed a stunning velocity, a dynamic technique and–above all–a sunniness in his playing that made me question whether he is capable of tackling more introspective pieces.

I wasn’t given the answer last night with the 21st Concerto (which I refuse to call the “Elvira Madigan” concerto...oh...sorry). Again, both conducting and performing the two outer movements, he gave a florid, felicitous and totally joyful performance, including a little practical joke of his own.

During the intermission I realized why Mr. Say and the Orpheus get along so well. Fazil Say gives the illusion of improvising as he goes along. And the singularity of the Orpheus conductor-less orchestra is that each player (or players of the “core”) give that same illusion. But, with their remarkable virtuosity, they are allowed to press forward on their own...to a degree. Thus, outside of some blurring in the center of the Allegro maestoso, both soloist and orchestra offered the conjuring trick of seeming to play this music as if enjoying it for the first time.

Two moments stand out, one not so good. Mozart’s Andante direction for the second movement was usually adhered to by older pianists, those who hadn’t seen Bo Widerberg’s film. The movement’s theme is elegant, courtly, notable more for its subtle orchestration than any particular melodic brilliance.

Since that time, though, artists aware of the movie attempt to make it a Chopinesque romance, and this is what Mr. Say did. Slower than andante, with many a retard, fluffing the music up to be “worthy” of the original film.

A lot more fun was the first movement cadenza. Mozart’s original cadenza is lost, so a composer like Fazil Say can go his own way. And what did he do? Instead of fantasias on the theme, he took the first violin notes of the preceding piece–Rossini’s Silk Ladder overture–and segued it into the rest of the more orthodox cadenza.

Perhaps a practical joke, the kind which Mozart would have played.

By the way, that Rossini was played with delicacy, with clarity, and an oboe solo by Roni Gal Ed that was wondrous.

Fazil Say was not finished after the Mozart. He considers himself a pianist/composer, and I had enjoyed his Chamber Symphony last year. For this concert, he played an illustrative “Silk Road” piano concerto with very serious political overtones.

Of course the Silk Road has inspired Yo-Yo Ma, with its ongoing epic. And Tan Dun, who came very close to successful in his opera Marco Polo, which, when I heard the premiere in Hong Kong, included Mr. Ma.

Fazil Say took another way out in this 20-minute work without break. Written for strings, piano solo, and gong (both Maya Gunji’s gong and Don Palma’s double bass stood at far ends of the stage), it started with a version of Tibetan music. It was more stylized than real, but one did feel a Himalayan exotica with gong and piano together. A short ersatz Indian raga imitations followed, the tabla on the piano almost jazzy. It finished with (supposed) tunes from Mr. Say’s Turkish homeland, though I recognized no particular songs. The music was quietly percussive, the soloist and the string orchestra chattered away in its “Earth Ballad” and the end left a felicitous taste.

Most memorable though was what the annotator erroneously wrote “Music from Iraq”. One has to look at the original title to see that the musical movement is titled Massacre.

Without going into detail, Mr. Say has been peripherally involved ideological struggles in his homeland, and this movement was indeed with an extra-musical purpose. Through microtones, though playing on the inner strings, the composer managed to replicate the Arab oudh. But with each phrase, he (and the double bass or the lower strings) added a quiet or sometimes loud “Boom!” an explosion of sorts. Not a shocking explosion. More a tragically habitual explosion after each line.

Had I not know the title, I don’t know how this would have affected me. Seeing the word “Massacre”, it was obvious. And somber. And tragic.

The finale was pure contrast. Haydn’s own ‘Paris” work, this the “Hen” Symphony. Listening to the full Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in a Haydn-sized ensemble, I realized that one should never take Haydn for granted. We all know that clucking hen sound from the oboe. But Haydn here has so many different themes, moods, emotions...

One might call it a “classical” symphony, which it is in form. But the feelings make it more surrealistic. The Orpheus began with a grim opening, added the chicken, and we had a quiet jubilation. That slow movement was poetic yet lively. And for a finale–what even Mozart would toss off with sheer inspiration–Haydn and the Orpheus began with a jolly 6/8 theme, and went on to add, in the development, vengeance and momentary anger.

That disappeared, of course, so that the orchestra would finish with the usual triumph, as if to say, along with the South Park policemen, “Nothing to worry about, Just move on to the finale.”

Which we did, with a sense of Haydnesque delight.

Harry Rolnick



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