The Orpheus Chamber Ensemble plays with the finesse of the Tokyo String Quartet and the intensity of the Juilliard -- all in all, a tough combination to beat.

Its program at NIH's Jack Masur Auditorium yesterday opened with an arrangement, for violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn, of the ebullient Strauss tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." Strauss' accustomed idiom, as anyone familiar with the "Also Sprach Zarathustra" theme made famous in the movie "2001" knows, was an immense orchestra. But this brilliant arrangement by F. Hasenohrl missed none of the color or fun of the original. Only in the gallows scene, without the blare of multiple horns, was there any sense that this version was a compromise. The performance was expertly controlled and the requisite teamwork was superb.

The Hindemith Octet, with its bouncy insouciance, got the kind of tightknit performance that preserved a sense of humor but kept it within the dry bounds of Hindemith's rather cerebral wit. The second movement ended with a marvelous, almost Mendelssohnian sotto voce chase.

An intense and beautifully paced reading of Schoenberg's "Verkla rte Nacht" completed the program. The long silence that followed the last note was eloquent testimony to the power of the performance.

-- Joan Reinthaler