One of the advantages of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s residency at the University of Maryland School of Music is that local audiences get to hear the celebrated conductor-less ensemble in action. On Friday night, the musicians stepped out of the classroom and into the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for a concert with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The performance is just one component of Orpheus’s residency. School of Music director Robert Gibson noted that Orpheus players coach students in chamber music, a crucial step to becoming a well-rounded orchestral player.
“There are elements in large ensemble performance that can’t come from a conductor,” Gibson said. “Listening closely, knowing when to lead and follow and adopting the collaborative spirit of chamber music brings qualitative results.”
Friday’s concert epitomized those results. Orpheus, with 23 players and a smart program, showed how to blend chamber music transparency with a full symphonic sound.
Michael Tippett’s underappreciated Divertimento on “Sellinger’s Round” was an inspired choice for an opener. An ingenious, Renaissance-styled stew intricately spiced with 20th-century dissonances, Tippett’s suite provided five viewpoints on an old English dance tune, including elegant solos for violinist Eric Wyrick, syncopated viola strumming and quirky excursions for winds, which quickly evaporated in Dekelboum Hall’s troublesome acoustics.
Sonically, Honegger’s impressionistic “Pastorale d’ete” fared better. Softly undulating strings supported a twittering of winds, references to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony and Julie Landsman’s soaring horn. The tranquilizing swelter of a summer day was palpable.
There was also heat in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, but perhaps too much. The tremendously energetic performance felt, at times, strangely overdriven. This is not heart-on-sleeve Tchaikovsky; it’s the composer’s homage to Mozart. Yet the aggressively attacked phrases in the opening movement and the famous waltz (far from lilting) would have sounded more at home in the heady melodrama of the fourth symphony. But there was also subtlety and beauty: a delicate scrim of tone opened the Elegie; and in the Finale, low strings produced waves of lustrous, chocolate-dark sound while violins plucked like balalaikas.
More musical impersonations materialized in Shostakovich’s whip-smart Piano Concerto No. 1. Composed as a vehicle for himself in 1933, the concerto prominently features a single trumpet, backed by strings. The music’s carefree personality marked high times for the lauded composer. But those days were numbered. It wouldn’t be long before Shostakovich’s brilliant but acerbic opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” would land him on Stalin’s “watch list.”
Trumpeter Louis Hanzlik and the Orpheus strings gave an appropriately rollicking performance. And Thibaudet tried his hardest, sounding best in the concerto’s slow movement, probing deeply into the heartwrenching music.
From his expansive discography (Ravel, Bill Evans, Liszt, Gershwin, Satie, Ellington, Mendelssohn), Thibaudet would appear to be comfortable playing almost anything, yet he didn’t muster the requisite sparkle for this newly learned concerto. Skittering runs were smudged and opportunities for humor lost, especially in the finale, a crazy jamboree where the music tumbles over itself in flashes of barrelhouse swagger and maniacal quotes from Beethoven. In this movement it was Hanzlik, relishing in high Shostakovich sarcasm, who easily stole the show.
The concert (which was repeated Saturday at Carnegie Hall) is the second of three Orpheus appearances during the residency. On March 31, the group will join Maryland faculty to perform Mendelssohn’s Octet.
Huizenga is a freelance writer.