Bach in Carnegie Hall, New York

2010-02-11 / Musical America / Christian Carey

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is perhaps best known for performing without
a conductor. But its other claim to fame is expanding the repertory for chamber orchestra. At its Feb. 6 Carnegie Hall concert, the group premiered its latest commission, Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Sea Orpheus,” the last piece in its New Brandenburgs project, which has introduced six new pieces based on the spirit of Bach’s concertos.

With its rousing and metrically shifting “Rondo” finale, Stravinsky’s Concerto in D the “Basel,” which opened the program, is a favorite among dance companies. It was written in 1946, and strains at the seams of neoclassicism, with passages that demonstrate an increasingly ambiguous relationship to tonality. Sometimes, as in the chromatic curve balls in its opening, it presages Stravinsky’s later explorations in modernism. But the composer also allows himself a brush with 19th-romanticism elsewhere in the work, recalling Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores. I was struck by the way Orpheus finessed the finale’s myriad twists and turns with both sprightly and rhythmically taut execution.

Angela Hewitt was making her debut with the orchestra, performing Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor. It was probably programmed to underscore the Bach affinities of the new Maxwell Davies piece on the second half, but her radiant performance made a bid for stealing the show. Purists from the historical-performance camp might have quibbled with some of Hewitt’s dynamic swells in the first movement, but for those willing to imagine what Bach might have done had a concert grand been available to him, her brilliantly executed cadenzas and abundant and fleet florid passage work were breathtaking. Elsewhere, she crafted pellucid cantabile lines in the Adagio and darted about playfully with the orchestra in the final movement.

In his program note, Maxwell Davies explains that “Sea Orpheus” takes its inspiration from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The instrumentation — flute, violin, and piano as the solo instruments and strings as the accompanying orchestra – is indeed the same. Musically, however, there are other influences afoot. Rather than emulating Bach’s early concerto style, it brings to mind the composer’s later contrapuntal masterpieces “Musical Offering” and the “Art of Fugue” with its frequently intricate, interweaving lines; a subtle quotation from the latter can be heard toward the end. There are other stylistic characteristics such as plainchant melodies — a Davies signature — and allusions to the composer’s beloved Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. Indeed, aquatic-themed music recalling everything from “La Mer” to the “Peter Grimes Four Sea Interludes” occasionally bubbles to its surface, all overlaid with a generous helping of dissonance.

Based on musical signatures alone, one might reasonably be left adrift as to the through-line of this multifaceted piece. But Davies has peppered musical inspirations with textual and social reference points that serve to clarify rather than obfuscate an already thickening stew. The work takes its title from a poem by the Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown; it depicts the story of a drowning girl. Davies views the piece as an allegory about global warming, a phenomenon that threatens his beloved Orkney Islands in coming decades. It’s an evocative, multi-textured work well worth repeated listenings. Pianist Christopher Taylor, violinist Renee Jolles and flutist Elizabeth Mann were impressively unerring in their interactions, both with each other and with the larger ensemble.

In its moments of pastoral repose, Dvorak’s String Serenade in E showcased Orpheus’ sumptuous tone. The lively dances, however, particularly a brilliant scherzo, brought out one of the risks of playing without a conductor, and the bobbing and weaving from the core leaders became a distraction. Still, despite moments of physical extroversion, the overall impression left one to marvel at the ensemble’s precise intonation, warm execution and supple rhythmic fluidity.