The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra presented a conductor-less performance under the auspices of Washington Performing Arts Society in the Music Center at Strathmore. Possibly due to the rather low attendance at Thursday’s performance, a representative of WPAS took to the stage to promote upcoming concerts, which is a great distraction for an audience seeking a refreshing musical experience. Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, nos. 1, 3, and 10, were very stylish and fluent, yet reminded one of messy hair: the winds were constantly behind the strings and less than audible. Gradations of tempi were well planned in advance and came off impressively well in these brief works.
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, photo courtesy of WPAS
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9, was performed by a smaller group of musicians, including a different concertmaster than before, as it is a rotating chair in this unique ensemble. Unfortunately, this Concertmaster was unable to get a warm, unforced sound from his instrument. Additionally, the excessive mannerisms of the two violinists – usually moving in opposite directions – and the orchestra in general resulted in their inability to play together and in an absence of espressivo sound. Jerky movements of the head limit one’s ability to hear oneself and those in different sections. A model performance of this high-Romantic, condensed, one-movement symphony was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s WPAS performance last season. Most tuning issues could likely have been resolved had the orchestra tuned on stage before each work. Good chamber groups make eye contact and breathe together; Orpheus did not, and the grand, final chord was not together (the winds arrived last).
Yefim Bronfman’s interpretation of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor was a treat. In full force of about thirty musicians, Orpheus offered a nice string sound and stately tempo in the first movement that allowed room for discovery. A couple days after his highly publicized concert in Manhattan's Grand Central Station, Bronfman was brilliant in letting the sound decay to near silence and then bringing it back up again, thus forcing the audience to listen closely. His tender voicing of middle and bass lines further reinforced the superb phrasing of top melodies, while octaves were strong, deep, and never typewriter-like à la Lang Lang. At the climax of the first movement, Bronfman’s entire body was off the bench for each chord, the weight of which was guided into the piano to match the orchestral chords. Such power was in contrast to gentler moments when Bronfman, with statue-like body, would gaze down at his hands as a master in full control. Frustratingly, when the soloist would turn to the concertmaster to establish coordination, he would find the concertmaster positioned in a direction away from him. Indeed, all Bronfman could see was the back of the Concertmaster’s jerking head. The fugue in the final movement was a mess, and the wind section missed an entrance. Please find a conductor to give them a cue.
Robert Battey, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Washington Post, October 20)
The next visiting orchestra presented by WPAS is the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (with Julia Fischer, October 23).
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