Since all of the musicians took the risk of traveling to Duke during one of the biggest winter storms in years, then the least we could do is drive a few icy miles to Page Auditorium. Despite cancellations at most other institutions, Duke Performances chose to adopt a “the show must go on” attitude and proceed with the concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and guest pianists Angela Hewitt and Christopher Taylor. However, recognizing the less than ideal road conditions, Duke Performances graciously extended the option for ticket holders who chose not to attend to exchange their tickets for future performances.
Perhaps if there was a single, autocratic musical dictator (also known as a conductor/music director) he/she might have decided to cancel this trip. But the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a model of artistic democracy that includes a prohibition against any non-instrument playing authority figure waving his/her arms in front of the people who are doing all the work. I have seen Orpheus many times in the past and have always marveled at their outstanding playing and cohesiveness and walked away thinking that yes, conductors may just be highly paid, superfluous employees – the appendix of the orchestra. It was tonight, for the first time, that I have reconsidered that belief.
The 200 hardy souls in attendance watched the orchestra come out as a unit (European and chamber music style) to perform Stravinsky’s Concerto in D (“Basel Concerto”). Although not quite as neo-Baroquey as his more familiar “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto, it is still a wonderful mixture of Stravinsky’s unmistakable sound and style with Baroque forms. The playing had all the spark of soggy wood along with the arrogance of virtuoso players who know they can play anything even without any inner energy behind it. There are plenty of excuses for that but it makes one wonder if a conductor could have made a difference. Of course that cannot be answered, but fortunately the performance – in that regard – steadily improved over the evening.
There’s nothing “neo” or “quasi” about the second work on the program: Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor. The soloist was the acclaimed Bach interpreter Angela Hewitt. Her presence seemed to light a fire under the seats of the 17 string players as there was a noticeably ratcheted-up impetus and edge to the playing. Paradoxically, the very slowly played adagio movement was wonderfully crafted with great moments of alternating tension and ease. Hewitt plays with the embodiment of relaxed technique: her arms barely move and rapid passages float beneath her fingers with total grace and serenity.
The Baroque connection continued after intermission with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Sea Orpheus, a new piece, commissioned by Orpheus as part of the New Brandenburg Project, that received its world premiere the night before, in Richmond, VA. This is orchestrated like Bach’s Fifth “Brandenburg” with the following soloists: Christopher Taylor, piano, Elizabeth Mann, flute, and Renee Jolles, violin. This work is one of the rare modern compositions written “in the style of” that I can actually imagine Bach having written were he alive today. Although quite modern and nothing at all like a standard Baroque work, its form and logic are of the same mindset. Pianist Taylor was tremendous as he got to play cadenzas for first the left and then later the right hand alone.
The concept of the conductor-less orchestra is that, like chamber music, everyone playing in a chamber orchestra needs to listen, adjust and connect like a string quartet. Even conductors tell their orchestra that very same thing in order to develop a more involved ensemble. Despite the upwardly moving arc of this trait throughout the evening, it wasn’t really until the final piece that a musical veil seemed to have lifted and the orchestra really came alive. The remarkable beauty of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings in E had a lot to do with it, but suddenly the players were smiling, they were both musically and physically leaning into each other, and you could sense the joy and love of this music coming through. This, alone, was worth the cold and the slippin’ and slidin’.