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The Thaumaturge Unmasked!

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/06/2008 -  
Josef Haydn: Overture to “L’Infedelità delusa”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K. 482
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
Elliott Carter: Symphony No. 1

Jonathan Biss (Piano)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (© Ken Nahum)

Many years ago (says an apocryphal tale) after a concert by the Budapest Quartet in a private home, the hostess rose to give a speech of thanks. “This was not only a wonderful concert”, she said, “but I hope that all of you will join me in donating enough money so we can make this teeny little group as big as Stan Kenton”.

Nobody, hopefully, is giving money to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to fund a conductor. These musicians are as technically proficient as those of any orchestra. Moreover, their ensemble goes back to not only the beginnings of orchestral music, but to experimental groups after the Russian Revolution, when all musicians were deemed to be equal, without a leader.

The first half of their program last night could have been grist for any small orchestra—Haydn and Mozart—but the second half would have seemed most unlikely until a few years ago. Yet in a way, the two Classical works were more memorable and just as unique as Charles Ives and his prize student, Elliott Carter.

Nothing was ordinary about Haydn’s “overture” to a satirical opera, which was too parochial and political to be performed today. But the word overture was put in quotes because it is certainly nothing like an ordinary opera overture. It is actually a little symphony, predating the later four movements, but equally entrancing. The first movement was laid out directly as an introductory movement. But after a marvelous oboe solo by Matthew Dine, it worked through an enchanting slow movement, and the kind of joyous finale which would be a perfect curtain-raiser.

The most interesting piece followed, thanks to the 28-year-old artist, Jonathan Biss. Mr. Biss’s unprepossessing appearance belied an extremely beautiful touch and natural understanding. But of course Mozart had much to do with this. I cannot remember any slow movement as personal, as touching and as filled with pathos as this E-flat Major Concerto, and Mr. Biss handled all the singular phrases with a feeling which transcended mere 18th Century elegance.

But this was also a test for the Orpheus, as that movement has Mozart’s cherished winds unaccompanied, alleviating the lower strings and the piano. That took a special balance which only the most refined conductor could accomplish. The Orpheus took it in their stride. The great surprise was in the last vivacious movement, where Mr. Biss played his own cadenza—not noted, alas in the program notes. It had a few Rachmaninoff piano leaps and a few more lush harmonies than Mozart would have composed, but I have no doubt he would have relished this playing. Mr. Biss, in other words, turned a mere Mozart piano concerto into a memorable and radiant string of jewels.

The Orpheus did make one little mistake in their experiment with Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Putting the solo trumpet into the second balcony was a clever move, putting the four winds into a dramatic cluster on stage was equally inventive. But the string choir, playing softly with mutes, still must be heard. Putting them backstage made them last among equals. The winds chattered, Louis Hanzlik’s trumpet was suitably elegiac, but the strings were too soft, too distant for their comforting chords.

The last work was most unexpected. We are all celebrating Elliott Carter’s Centenary this month, and the ebullient Mr. Carter is with us in appreciative person as well. But to hear his First Symphony was a revelation. To think that Elliott Carter—dense, opaque, soaring, vast and intimate, making Möbius bands of melodies and defying the time-space continuum—had written a piece of cheery Americana like this a mere 64 years ago!! Here were moments of Bernstein dances, more than enough Copland tunes, a few bluesy phrases in the finale, and an all too serious slow movement.

“It was”, he explained, “an effort to produce a work that meant something to me as music and yet might, I hoped. Be understandable to the general music public I was trying to reach”.

He never quite reached that public, since the music is virtually never played, because Mr. Carter never was a “closet Coplander”. His own transcendent language has found its own public. And while the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra must be honored for bringing us this pretty symphony, it will go back into the drawer and allow the sun to shine not on Carter the sensible, but Carter the magician.

Harry Rolnick



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