Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and pianist Jan Lisiecki concluded a European concert tour together, punctuated by a final stop at the Library of Congress Saturday night. The conductor-less ensemble proved once again that they can perform at a high level relying only on one another to mark the beat.
First on the program was Valerie Coleman’s “Phenomenal Women,” a suite of four movements inspired by admirable women, in a new chamber orchestra adaptation commissioned by the Library of Congress. Coleman effortlessly veered into jazz styles, such as the smoky tango in the “Maya Angelou” movement, and used percussion strikes humorously to evoke the smack of tennis balls in “Serena Williams.” The virtuosic playing of flutist Brandon George lit up the “Caravana” movement, dedicated to immigrant women crossing the U.S. southern border only to be separated from their children.
Orpheus gave a brilliantly taut rendition of Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony (“Italian”), ebullient tempos maintained with utter clarity of ensemble. The major drawback of not having a conductor is that in the heat of the moment, Orpheus tends to overplay forte sections with no way to judge balances reliably from within the ensemble. This may have caused some off-color brass notes in the first movement, but was more than compensated for by the delightful horn and bassoon sounds in the trio of the third movement.
The climax of the evening was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1, recorded by Orpheus and Lisiecki on a disc released this past winter by Deutsche Grammophon. The 24-year-old Canadian pianist attacked the solo part’s daunting passage work with effortless ease, a near-constant stream of scintillating figuration in the first and third movements. Starting with the cadenza-like transition into the slow movement, however, Lisiecki’s bland touch could not sustain interest in soft, legato sections. The same problem was apparent in the encore, Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words in G Minor,” Op. 19, No. 6 — pretty but not affecting.