Saturday, April 30, 2011

Brutal Democracy!

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra may be unique in always playing without a conductor - though at least the Kremerata Baltica does it quite often, too. But I have never seen an orchestra where the soloist sidles in with the whole band, in the middle of them, rather than making an entrance on his or her own! Not sure that every soloist could take that - it's not exactly ego-boosting. More like Prima inter Pares, in tonight's case, with Arabella Steinbacher as the soloist. And then, without a conductor, there is no one for the soloist to hold on to, so to speak - quite often, in concerts, there are many exchanges of gaze between conductor and soloist, but here she was pretty much on her own - in difficult pieces. Who could she communicate with? Who was leading? But the Orpheus gets plenty of excellent soloists, so it must be all right. The fact that Gidon Kremer complained bitterly about the band in one of his many autobiographies does not mean that much, he's a bit prone to doing that.

Another unusual aspect is that the seats in the orchestra keep changing, particularly in the strings - so the person who was in a seat in one piece may be sitting in a completely different seat (in the same instrument group). Not entirely sure that that really matters, especially since they've always done it, but it's interesting. So if you are in the band, you could be sitting anywhere, unlike in other orchestras where people work their way from the back to the front, if they are lucky, or all the way to the back, if they aren't.

Anyway, the concert started with R Strauss' wind serenade, op 7, for a rather large group of winds. A very romantic piece, written in 1881, so quite early in his career - the guy lived quite long. Actually, he was an adolescent lad of 17 then; his dad was a very good horn player... It was a nice piece, but the sound arrived at my seat like a big bowl of chicken soup with lots of spaghetti length noodles - the individual voices were not very clear. Perhaps that was his intention? It was nice, but the texture, I felt, could have been better. I was eyeing those four horns at the back and thinking about the Schumann piece for four horns and orchestra....

Then we had, wandering in in the middle of the band, Arabella Steinbacher, who mercifully wore a bright red gown, so we could identify her more easily (plus she was the only one standing up, once the orchestra had settled, apart from one bassist). The concerto was Hartmann's Concerto Funebre, written at the start of the second world war - and I wonder what he knew about all the horrors being committed at the time. Nut surprisingly it was somewhat of a dark piece (not sure about the hope being expressed in the last movement, as the programme notes say). It had a very biting, strident third movement, which was awesome. Steinbacher, who played this from memory (awesome all by itself, try asking Y Bashmet to play anything from memory), did wonderfully - getting a nice dark, mournful tone from her violin - and everything hung together.

Following the interval, we had Mozart and Haydn. As a result few people left the concert hall, compared to last week's effort by the American Symphony Orchestra. Mozart's Adagio, and Rondo, for violin and orchestra. Both sublimely played and Steinbacher again produced quite a beautiful tone, very different from the Hartmann (well, obviously - but not everyone might have been able to 'get' these different moods). Finally she added an encore, of something really well-known, of the virtuosic variety (Kreisler, I am told) which knocked the socks off the audience. For this she got a bit of a standing ovation - a real one, not one caused by people rushing out of the hall. Incidentally, I am sure I heard her in Vilnius with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, before my blogging days - but it's not mentioned in her biography. Maybe rightly so....

The concert (almost) ended with Haydn's London Symphony. Here I thought that at times it did not quite hang together. In the second movement there was a moment when a big idea fell apart a little bit - too much of a rest between the strings finishing and the flutes entering; and in the trio the oboe seemed to get a bit carried away with himself - trying to add suspense, but it was a bit over-stretching the knicker elastic. Otherwise it was fine, and even with multiple instrument roles obviously this band can hold it together.

The next bit was again a bit surprising. The applause started, the orchestra bowed, and trouped out en masse, with all instruments, even the basses, being carried off. But the applause was continuing - and so they all trooped back. Also a bit unusual. They gave an encore, Handel, either fireworks or water music with nice horn lines - this was in aid of something; someone had given short speech - something to do with the patrons. Who obviously need to be treated in a very kind way, especially these days. It was a very pleasant end to the evening - and then the orchestra trooped out one way, and the audience the other way - after rather brief applause (by that time the concert had become quite long).

But overall, it's a very nice and great band - particularly given the challenge of working without a conductor. Though hey, they've been at that long enough to have worked out a modus operandi!