Saturday, April 30, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Arabella Steinbacher, violin. April 29, 2011.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Row Y, Seat 14, $25).

Serenade in E-flat major, Op. 7 (1881) by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Concerto funebre (1939, rev. 1959) by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963).
Adagio in E major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261 (1776) by Mozart (1756-91).
Rondo in C major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373 (1871) by Mozart.
Symphony No. 104 in D major “London” (1795) by Haydn (1732-1809).

I am writing this blog before I start on last night’s New York Philharmonic performance. I didn’t take too much notes for this event, and would want to get my thoughts down while they are still fresh. I will post it after I post the Philharmonic review, so they will appear in proper chronological order.

We started driving a little after 5 pm (in the car with the fixed tire), and soon found out both in-bound tunnels had 30+ minutes – and growing - wait times. So we turned around, parked the car at the train station, and went up by train instead. We got to the Carnegie Hall area early enough that we could get a burrito at Chipotle’s before the concert.

The first piece of the evening was written by Strauss when he was seventeen, and his composition style was still very much influenced by classical composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. At least that’s what the program notes would have you think. They could have fooled me. While the sound was quite tonal, in no way did the composition sound like a piece from the Mozart/Beethoven school. Overall it sounded pleasant enough, and is downright amazing considering it was written by a seventeen year old young man (kid, actually). At that age I was trying to recognize what a I-IV-V-I cadence sounded like. Strauss would go on to write music for another 60 years, most of which I yet have to understand (or hear). The piece is orchestrated for woodwinds and four horns, thirteen players total. Yet the small group managed to sound tentative and muddled. The concert wasn’t off to a good start.

Arabella Steinbacher was born and raised in Germany (German father, Japanese mother). She looks younger than her age (30), and plays the “Booth” Stradivarius (1716) on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. She got her break in 2004 when she was a last-minute substitute for another soloist who had gotten ill. I guess there are several examples of this (the conductors Bernstein and Morlot immediately come to mind), and not surprising given there must be many great musicians who do not get the chance to shine.

The concerto was written by the composer when the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia; he called it Music for Mourning until it was revised in 1959 and given its current name. The music was smuggled out of Germany and got its premiere in Switzerland in 1940. (I do wonder why word didn’t get back to the Germans.) Per the program notes, it is mostly a dark piece and references old chorales, however, the sound is thoroughly modern. The demands on the violinist are considerable, but only limited range of techniques is called for (e.g., no left-hand pizzicato). Steinbacher played with gusto but a limited dynamic range. And “sad” or “hopeless” isn’t the emotion I would associate with the music. In that context the “hope” of the last two or so minutes didn’t come across in any dramatic way. Steinbacher’s biography says she got great reviews playing Sibelius’s Concerto, which to many describe the composer’s frustration and eventual accommodation with his own shortcomings as a violinist. I wonder how that sounded.

The movements of this concerto are Introduction: Largo – Adagio – Allegro di molto – Choral: Langsamer Marsch.

After the intermission, Steinbacher played two Mozart pieces that are familiar to the violin student. She did them well, but not exceptional. For an encore she played a rather difficult solo piece that clearly demonstrated her technical abilities. (She announced the piece in German, I think; and I failed to catch it.)

The one thing constant in her performance is the great sound she makes with the violin. It is amazing how a 300-year old instrument can take whatever an artist throws at it and still yield a clean and pleasant sound. There were times I worried something would break, though.

Haydn wrote a total of twelve symphonies while he was staying in London (on two separate occasions). Evidently people don’t quite know why No. 104 is called “London”. Compared to other Haydn symphonies I am familiar with (definitely not all of them), this is rather long at an advertised 29 minutes. And it felt that long, given the way the orchestra played it. Not because every now and then someone would come in early or sound too loud (and there were quite a few instances of those), but because “uninspired” is the best way to describe how it was played. When played well (or just reasonably well), Haydn’s symphonies are easy to understand, and a delight to listen to. Neither is the case here. These are not just my expectations, even the program notes uses words and phrases such as “organic connection”, “sweet”, “deceptively simple”, and “whim” to describe the composition. The movements of the symphony are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto: Allegro; and (iv) Finale: Allegro spiritoso.

This is the third Orpheus performance this season we attended, and I still haven’t gotten used to the orchestra’s sound yet. Even though the orchestra is on the small side, there is still considerable distance (physically and musically) between the last person in the violin section and the double bass section. While there may be few instances they need to adjust to each other during a performance, it illustrates the difficulties these players face if they need to do so. If after 40 years you can’t quite achieve unity in the sound, it may be time to try it with a conductor. But then there will be nothing special about the orchestra.

We left immediately at the conclusion of the Haydn Symphony, but still missed the train by 10 minutes; not so bad compared to times we missed by just a couple. We got home after midnight. The tradeoff is if you drive in, you worry about traffic, and if you take the train in, you worry if you will miss the train for the return trip.

I found a review of the same program played in Troy the day before. There the orchestra also played a couple of encores. In our case, we don't know if any encores were played by the Orchestra.

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