The typical recipe for an orchestral concert calls for a conductor. But the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been going off-book for more than 42 years. Instead of having one person at the podium making decisions on tempos, shaping phrases and dynamics, and generally determining the direction of a piece, the entire orchestra chimes in with thoughts and opinions. It's a musical democracy — and it yields remarkable results.
The orchestra I heard Saturday night was cohesive, attentive and on a seemingly higher level of musical awareness than your average ensemble. You could hear it in the music — and see it as section leaders (a different one for each piece) interacted with each other, through eye contact, nodding of heads and other gestures.
Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to La Cambiale di Matrimonio, a fun, lively work, started the evening off well, distinguished by excellent horn playing toward the beginning of the piece and articulate playing by the orchestra throughout.
Pianist Jonathan Biss then combined forces with the orchestra for a very fine performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. The collaboration between soloist and orchestra seemed effortless, which is unsurprising; Biss has played with Orpheus many times before, and there was a sense of real familiarity and cohesion between the two, not to mention their extremely high level of playing. His Beethoven was confident and secure, but never arrogant. The audience gave him a well deserved standing ovation, and I only wish he’d played an encore.
Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Prologue and Variations is an intriguing piece that's entirely accessible to the ear, which can’t always be said for works from the late 20th century (this one was written in 1983).
The evening ended with Poulenc’s merry, almost satirical Sinfonietta, which brings together all manner of moods and styles. The orchestral pulled out all the stops for this one, fully realizing Poulenc’s charmingly colorful musical palette.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra plays with a youthful exuberance and musical maturity. That's a mix that can't be easily duplicated — just like their innovative, democratic management style.