Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, photographed by Larry Fink
(photo courtesy of Stanford University)

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra kicked off its 111th free summer concert series on Tuesday, June 28. The concert, performed at the historic Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, featured an all-Beethoven program.

Beethoven’s programmatic Coriolan Overture narrates the tragedy of General Gaius Coriolanus, as recounted in Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 eponymous Coriolan. In the primary C minor theme, Coriolanus contemptuously declares his plan to invade the fifth-century Roman Empire that has exiled him; in the secondary E-flat major theme, the general’s mother begs him to make peace. Orpheus highlighted this interplay between mother and son with fluid shifts of focus. Tender, singing violin melodies were in dialogue with more aggressive passages dominated by lower strings and brass. Woven between these two characters, serpentine cello arpeggiations in a passage riddled with accidentals featured the ability of Orpheus’s cello section to produce articulate, soft spiccato with precise intonation. Unfortunately, the outdoor venue made it tough to savor the overture’s intimate moments; the closing pizzicatos were ironically punctuated by chirping birds. 

The blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii joined for Beethoven’s sonorous “Emperor” concerto and established his technical prowess right away, arpeggiating and trilling at an adequately jaunty pace. As the theme passed to the strings, his performance grew livelier. But liveliness has its limits. As the first movement progressed, it became apparent that Tsujii was driving the orchestra, speeding through the movement’s most tender moments. Playing with this “democratic chamber group,” the soloist staged a coup. This movement would have benefitted from more feeling, dynamic contrast, and rubato from Tsujii (only during the second movement did he begin playing with emotion), but Tsujii’s forceful leadership was well received overall.

In a concerto, the conductor mediates between orchestra and soloist. If the soloist does anything unexpected, the conductor guides the orchestra, following the soloist. For the conductorless Orpheus, no intermediary was necessary. Tsujii essentially functioned as the absent conductor, and the group, already expertly attuned to visual clues from fellow musicians, followed Tsujii’s unconventional tempo choices with grace, despite Tsujii’s often-ambiguous cues.

The transition to movement three was seamless. Thanks to Tsujii’s leadership, the orchestra avoided the endemic awkwardness of the passage’s tempo fluctuations, and it perfectly matched Tsujii’s articulations. With resounding energy and synchronization, Orpheus championed the theme of the final movement. Beethoven’s “Emperor,” more than any other piece in the concert, highlighted the strengths of both the soloist and the chamber orchestra. At the grand conclusion of the concerto and before the applause, an audience member near me couldn’t help but murmur, “Wow.” I had to agree.

Tsujii proceeded to perform two solo encore pieces: Gershwin’s “Prelude No. 1” and the Liszt–Paganini “La Campanella.” Though the audience was enthusiastic enough for one encore, it certainly hadn’t called for a second. The ensuing mini-concert felt awkward and forced. Both the jazz and the étude showcased Tsujii’s incredible speed with virtuosic technique, but the initial Gershwin blues motif elicited giggles from the audience.

As Beethoven’s iconic four-note motif announced the arrival of fate and the beginning of Symphony No. 5, the fate of Orpheus itself, a small chamber orchestra attempting to produce a symphonic sound, was made clear. With just twenty-one string players (a symphony orchestra may have upwards of fifty), the group faces an inherent structural disadvantage, and the initial iteration of the fate motif lacked the sheer power so necessary to Beethoven Five. The sound felt much fuller upon the entrance of brass and percussion, but Orpheus still had to work to create the booming Beethoven effect throughout the piece. The group managed to do so, downplaying its lack of strings by exaggerating the extremities of the dynamics spectrum, particularly in the huge, conclusive coda to the first movement.

In the second movement, Andante con moto, Orpheus fixated on the moto. The orchestra moved too quickly through the first variation of the initial theme, failing to capture its range of emotion. The quicker pace, however, allowed Orpheus to pass around each theme and variation more smoothly, and the transitions were flawless. With uniform articulation and expression, each section of instruments perfectly matched the group’s style.

This interplay persisted throughout Beethoven’s Fifth, with only a few blips in the Scherzo. While Orpheus appropriately contrasted the lyricism of the initial cello/bass sequence with the grandiosity of the horn section’s fate rhythm revival, the cello/bass unison passages that Beethoven features so prominently in this movement tended to be out of sync. The unconventional placement of double basses behind first violins seemed to detract from the cohesion. In quiet, exposed moments, the violin pizzicato, viola grace notes, and timpani beats all suffered from the same synchronization problem. Nonetheless, these symptoms of the absent conductor were very minor in comparison to the clearly successful group interaction.

Indeed, the brilliant transition from movement three to four put any previous awkwardness out of mind. Every violinist looked like a concertmaster, cuing and moving in time as a unit. This striking visual epitomized the “rotation of musical leadership” mantra so touted by Orpheus. Throughout the Allegro, the brass section was a powerful, driving force. The strings played fiercely and impressively, projecting exhilaration across the lawn. Orpheus’s thrilling vitality signaled a conclusive victory, as lightning flashed in time with the music.