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Orpheus and Ax on a Perfect Mozart Sunday

The emergence of historically informal performance orchestras that did so much to our appreciation of the baroque and classical repertoire, now freed from the patina of decades of interpretation and re-interpretation, had the unfortunate effect that that very repertoire is now less frequently played by most big symphony orchestras. They seem more and more confined to the romantic repertoire – and it is a pity for many reasons. It does, however, heighten our appreciation for HIP bands or chamber orchestras that come to town and show us how to do Mozart, Haydn, Bach et al. well.

So Capella Andrea Barca and András are very welcome, indeed, when they bring their all-Mozart program to the Kennedy Center on Saturday – especially if their contribution to the 250th anniversary of Mozart (still being milked heavily) is as good as Orpheus’ such program at Strathmore last Sunday was, where they performed with Emanuel Ax.

Orpheus’ last appearance at Strathmore is held in good memory and their presentation of the Mozart C-major and G-major piano concertos – book-ended by the Così fan tutte overture and the “Haffner” symphony – will stay in mind as well. This was Mozart done in a way that left no wishes unanswered. The orchestra’s ability to turn on a dime – from heft and force (a surprisingly meaty beginning of the C-major concerto, with low strings supported by the generous Strathmore acoustic), from fleet to light was only the most obvious element. Emanuel Ax, who left me short of impressed when I saw him last in Baltimore, was in good form. Bubbly but not careless, light but never erring on the “Dresden China” side of excessive preciousness, and supported by a Steinway the brightness of which favored the Mozart concerto.

Perhaps no genre of Mozart’s is so jam-packed with gems as that of the concerto. The piano concertos, with 27 by far the most numerous among them (5 for violin, 4 for horn, two for flute, one each for bassoon, clarinet, oboe, violin and viola, flute and harp make up the rest) largely contribute to this. Half a dozen early works aside, you can’t pick one that doesn’t offer brilliance, substance, and beguilement. K453 in G-major is no exception. Played as a much lighter work than the preceding one, it is (and certainly was in this instance) more ‘gentle longing’ than ebullient glory. The opening Allegro already contains the wistful mood of the slow movement (Andante) before the very speedily played Allegretto finishes the work on a – in this performance – impatient note.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Orpheus at Strathmore: Do-It-Yourself Mozart (Washington Post, October 17)
The ensemble work was as impressive as we have (again) come to expect from this conductor-less band that still contains a good amount of original members amid much young blood. Minor brass snags (in the C-major) and woodwind unevenness (G-major) aside, the performances were flawless and, more importantly, eminently enjoyable. Ax, in particular, added the right note of gravitas without over-romanticizing to the second concert, before he hurried off with the rest in the finale.

The concert began with the Così fan tutte overture and, as far as playing Mozart overtures is concerned, it should be said that decidedly not “all do it like that”. I am eagerly awaiting the day our NSO or BSO can throw of Mozart so nonchalantly, so effortlessly, so naturally. The “Haffner” symphony that brought the evening to an end came with plenty of weight, belying the source (less than three dozen players) and was downright thunderous. Shying interpretive extremes, Orpheus performances like this might suffice to give the phrase “middle of the road” a positive connotation. At any rate, it raised the bar and hopes for Schiff’s appearance this Saturday.