If one has never attended a concert featuring the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, one might be surprised by the lack of a conductor. But what they lack in “leadership”, they more than make up for in musicianship and talent. This small ensemble packs big sound and more than fills a hall the size of Stern Auditorium. As it did for its 40th anniversary opening concert at Carnegie Hall on October 11th.
The concert began with an unusually conductor-less (though, for Orpheus, thats very much the norm) overture to L’italiana in Alergi. The piece took on a whole new feeling with a smaller orchestra. Almost having an organic, homegrown sensation. It made one pause to breathe in the newness of seeing and hearing the overture scaled back and conductor-less. After one gets over said shock, and gets used to the idea of not seeing the bouncing baton, one is able to settle in for the evening.
But with the following piece being Earth Echoes composed by Augusta Read Thomas, one cannot remained settled for long.
Ms. Thomas was co-commissioned by Orpheus and The Koussevitzky Music Foundation to commemorate the centennial of Gustav Mahler’s death. The newly commissioned piece is meant to be a reflection on his last vocal composition Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Scored for orchestra and solo voices, the piece deals with much the same subjects. From life, to nature, to renewal, Ms. Thomas set out to compose an homage to one of the most complex and intricate musicians of the 19th and 20th century. Indeed of all time. Ms. Thomas chose poetry that arched and ebbed like that of Mahlers “Song of the Earth. ” Including works from over a millennium ago. When one read the transcriptions in their program, one couldn’t help but be taken by the beauty of the speech and anticipate how she would sent the text to music. Being that this concert was its world premiere, great anticipation was held.
Unfortunately one could not exactly hear nor understand the eloquence of the text behind the actual music. Though at times it had its brilliance, over all, this atonal setting sounded like a mere random cacophony of sporadic notes. The poetry is lost with vocal lines weaving in and out making it extremely difficult to follow, or even realize that the language was indeed our own; English.
This is not the fault of our soloists, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, and baritone Nathan Gunn. Ms. Cooke began the piece with a low drowning howl that was met with Mr. Gunn’s brilliant baritone. Both artists were unable to really show their true talent in a piece such as this with most of the focus being on the music. We had a rare glimpse of Mr. Gunns talent in a lyric passage in the fifth movement, a section taken from Tennessee Williams. Ms. Cooke spent most of the evening in her low chest-voice which gave a brash feeling, and of a gritty beauty. Perhaps this was the intention of the composer. Being that life is full of the unexpected, and can at times be quite nasty, these qualities are definitely reflected in the music. Including a passage with an extremely loud gong that is almost quite literally deafening.
Maybe, much like the works of the immortal classics, a piece like this needs time to simmer and stew in the publics subconscious before we look back on it with fond memories.
For more information about Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, click here.
For more information about Carnegie Hall, click here.