Perfectly In Concert

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with Emanuel Ax. At the Arlington
Theatre, Wednesday, October 25.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Ax2.jpgFrom the sparkling, light fanfare that
opens the Così fan Tutte overture to the triumphant, tumbling
“Presto” of the Symphony No. 35 in D Major, the Orpheus Chamber
Orchestra played with such exquisite freshness that it was like
hearing Mozart for the first time. Not for nothing is the Carnegie
Hall’s resident orchestra known for its democratic working methods;
the absence of a conductor and the rotating of lead players
signifies far more than an organizational philosophy. Such shared
artistic responsibility requires every musician be fully attuned to
every other, and the result is a breathtakingly balanced,
integrated sound.

That achievement is all the more stunning given the presence of
an outsider in their midst; internationally acclaimed piano
virtuoso Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra in two piano concertos
from Mozart’s most prodigious period of composition, the mid
1780s.

The piano slips in, late and beautifully understated, to the
Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major before winding its way between the
strings, and Ax played with a slender fluidity and grace belying
his stout physique. The concerto is a prime example of the
composer’s tendency to flaunt his own technique on the piano — its
tripping arpeggios and drawn-out trills are dazzling — yet Ax and
Orpheus achieved an extraordinary balance. Ax made the piano’s
theme sing like a brook bubbling alongside the orchestral layering;
his playing was never overpowering, and never overpowered.

In contrast, the Piano Concerto No. 17 in C Major, written for
Mozart’s student Barbara von Ployer, exhibits the simple innocence
and warm roundedness of chamber music. Ax brought an aching,
suspended quality to the wistful melody of the slow movement. If
anything, the simplicity of this concerto accentuated the soloist’s
sublimely lyrical musicality.

The program closed with the Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K.385,
also known as the “Haffner Symphony,” where with dramatic
physicality the first violinist led the orchestra through masterful
modulations of volume and tempo, building from the refined
“Andante” and “Minuet” to the exuberant, racing “Presto.” CAMA
president Bitsy Bacon honored the Orpheus style in her opening
remarks by giving the audience permission to applaud between
movements, and Ax came to the front of the stage after intermission
to cheerfully announce that the car alarm punctuating the second
movement of the first concerto was not a third bassoon. It was
precisely this kind of human warmth and honesty that infused the
performance, leaving space for the real revelry necessary to
transform highly accomplished playing into truly great music.

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