Orpheus at Strathmore: Do-It-Yourself Mozart

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the renowned conductorless ensemble from New York, visited the Music Center at Strathmore on Sunday to present an all-Mozart program, including two piano concertos with Emanuel Ax. This group has always been interesting, if sometimes frustrating.

Drawn from the cream of the New York freelance scene, these musicians play with an intensity and attentiveness one wishes conventional orchestras would emulate. They breathe as one, and visibly enjoy and feed off of each other's playing. But some of their decisions seem peculiar. Why are the violins not divided left/right, as was done in Mozart's day? What would have been the harm in tuning to the piano? (Wind chords in the Concerto in C, K. 503, were iffy.) What happened to the first-movement repeat in the "Haffner" symphony? Why was the orchestra reduced for the operatic Concerto in G, K.453, but at full strength for the gentler K. 503?

A conductor might have dealt with these issues differently, and might also have provided a framework for greater chiaroscuro. There was precision and fire aplenty, but little spontaneity. One got the feeling that the excellent musicians operated mainly on two levels: leading voice, and accompaniment. In the absence of an objective ear and a single, forceful interpreter in front, Mozart's complex, multilayered textures were often simplified, particularly in the concertos.

Of Ax, there is little to add to what has been said of him for decades: He is one of the world's preeminent keyboard artists, whose lissome playing suits Mozart especially well. Every lovingly spun phrase gave pleasure.

-- Robert Battey


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