Coordinating a 31-piece orchestra can be a challenge even with an experienced conductor and players. At last evening's Friends of Chamber Music presentation of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the audience witnessed the synchronization of the group without the benefit of conductor. Orpheus is far larger than the average ensemble Friends of Chamber Music brings to the Newman Center for its concert series, but the group never strayed from its mission to be democratically governed and the music reflected this unified vision throughout.
The homophonic pizzicati in the strings which open Gioachino Rossini's Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri indicated the high level of communication within the orchestra to come. From Rossini's early comic opera (premiered in 1813) this frothy overture was a perfect start to the evening's focus on classic repertoire from the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The program was anything but adventurous, but Orpheus is one of the only ensembles in the United States to play this repertoire from a chamber music model rather than the larger symphonic model which necessitates the presence of a conductor. In Rossini, the contrast in dynamics and the flow from one melodic idea to another is key. The orchestra nuanced the phrasing and articulation as a single unit, with the woodwind section in particular acting as a single voice. From these unified flecks of sound, John Snow's coy oboe solos emerged, giving a hint of the vocal comedy to come in the opera.
The highlight of the evening was Richard Goode's guest appearance in Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in a minor (1845). Joining the already impeccable sound of the orchestra, his piano became its own section in the orchestra rather than acting as a solo instrument sitting apart. Schumann's concerto is a culmination of his other shorter character pieces, as well as his ideas formed during his outpouring of Lieder with piano accompaniment from the 1840-1841 period. Here, the piano echoes other instrumental voices, and at times churns along through arpeggiated harmonies before bursting forth from the orchestral texture. Goode was thoroughly lyrical in his playing, always perfectly bringing out the melodic line while balancing the harmonies in the left hand. The first movement, Allegro affettuoso (affectionately lively), was particularly elegant and Goode's masterful phrasing was heard in a long series of trills during the cadenza. The calm Intermezzo movement flowed directly into the final, triumphal Allegro vivace. Goode clearly articulated the almost continual eighth-note patterns in the high range of the keyboard with finesse and ease. The flow between soloist and orchestra seemed effortless and brought Schumann's expressive concerto to life.
Goode offered the Andante of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major (K453) as an encore, and the overwhelming grace of both the slow movement itself and Goode's playing made for a lovely contrast to Schumann's more intense exploration of the keyboard. Even with scale-like figures and ornaments, Goode communicated a legato line and revealed Mozart's gift for making a simple melody profound.
Orpheus closed the program with Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 4 'Italian,' (1833) yet another staple of this repertoire, but not often heard with such natural clarity. The orchestra members changed chair positions throughout the evening, and the depth of talent in the group was evident in each piece. As with the Rossini, the dynamic changes flowed seamlessly through the orchestra, and the trading of motivic figures from instrument to instrument was clear. The Andante, with its walking bass and melancholy melody, inspired by a religious procession Mendelssohn witnessed in Italy, was especially nuanced. The program came to a rousing conclusion with the Saltarello: Presto movement and its swiftly moving theme and rhythmic intensity. This is Mendelssohn as his most dramatic, and the orchestra came alive in this fiery finish.
It was a real treat to hear this traditional repertoire played with ease and the communication of a smaller chamber group, and especially to see and hear the interplay between a gifted soloist like Goode and the ensemble. This unity of musical expression is chamber music at its best.