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At last! A Cure For The Common Seasons!!

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/21/2009 -  
Josef Haydn:Symphony No. 6 in D Major “Le Matin”
Astor Piazzolla: Quatros Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires)
Melinda Wagner: Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries (World Premiere, commissioned by Orpheus)
Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite (Revised 1949)

Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg (Violin), Renée Jolles (Violin), Susan Palma-Noel, Susan Rotholz (Flute)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concerts are invariably memorable. But after 37 years, nobody wonders how they perform their miracles without a conductor. The concerts are fascinating because the programs are so unique.

Last night, they performed four works which could have come from the 18th Century—but they were all composed far later. Orpheus themselves have commissioned composers to “update” the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, a job done here by Melinda Wagner. The great Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla transmuted Vivaldi’s Four Seasons into Buenos Aires (the way Villa-Lobos had made Bach a Brazilian), and Stravinsky took the obscure 18th Century Pergolesi and gave him a Russian/French makeover. Even Franz Josef Haydn’s symphony, with its instrumental solos could well have been, at a stretch, a Telemann’s “Concerto For Every Instrument”.

Then again, this was very early Haydn, and could have been played with mere courtly grace. Instead, after a moving “dawn” opening, the Orpheus presented a kind of concertante symphony, with solo violin, cello, horn and flute playing solos against the orchestra. This was Haydn the experimenter (and he had his own orchestra to work with), and some of his effects, like the Trio of the third movement, were absolutely beautiful.

When Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg came on stage, though, to wild, heartfelt and personal applause, in a sleeveless blouse with sparkly trouser-skirt, the entire theatre seemed to float a few inches higher. It is not that she is a great violinist or takes chances, or is a personality in her own right. The only way to savor Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg is to know that she becomes, she lives her own instrument.

Other violinists—Mutter, Midori, Chang—can give ethereal performances. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg is the Mother Earth of the violin. She rocks with it, dances with it, her fingerwork is impeccable, her tone gorgeous, but every single musical expression is in her body and obviously her soul.

That has always been true, but in the Piazzolla impressions of Vivaldi (originally for guitars and violin but orchestrated by Leonid Desyatnikov), everything became electric. I had heard this before with Gidon Kremer, but Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg turned a rhythmic tour de force, with the most difficult roles for herself and the orchestra, into a carnival of music. Even the schmaltzy “autumn” music—which could have come from the dingiest smoke-filled bar in Budapest—was played straight, without a hint of its droopy quality.

(A short note. I had always wondered why Piazzolla had quoted Vivaldi’s “winter” themes in the “summer” movement. I finally found it. Think hemispheres. An Argentine summer is our winter and vice versa.)

After the intermission, three soloists came together for Melissa Wagner’s version of Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg. It was a clever piece, though I made a mistake in trying to tie the two together. The soloist and orchestral forces were the same (except for a celesta), and the tempos the same, but otherwise, it was all original. Some very beautiful playing, and some assured aural effects (flutes, high violin and celesta), it was all too short and all too happy.

No musical ensemble could dare call itself perfect, so it was no shame that during Pulcinella, it was obvious they needed a conductor. Yes, they could manage all the off-beats, the syncopations, those ersatz-Pergolesi harmonies. But the balance was badly off from the middle of the suite to the end. The bassoon chatter was louder than the strings, the horns chortled over the rest of the orchestra. The far-too-rapid tempos of the variations needed a gentler hand to draw at least an outline of the score.

Never mind. The Orpheus had brought such real joy for the rest of the concert that the Stravinsky was like the off-centre rock in a Japanese garden, simply to point out how elegant and creative the rest of the garden of delights could be.

Harry Rolnick



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