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Orpheus in Mechanics Hall


There were three firsts at Mechanics Hall in Worcester last Friday night.  Music Worcester, Inc., opened the 154th edition of the Worcester Music Festival with the first appearance there of the highly esteemed chamber orchestra, Orpheus, which performs without a conductor. And the orchestra offered two firsts:  the first time in its 41-year existence that they had performed Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and the American premiere of a set of jazz-inflected variations for piano and orchestra by Brad Mehldau. Taken altogether, these three items made for a thoroughly entrancing and even thrilling evening.

The program opened with Johannes Brahms’ own orchestration of a selection from his Liebeslieder Waltzes (“Love song waltzes”), originally composed for four singers and two pianos. The first set of waltzes of that title (all settings of charming, generally inconsequential poems by G. F. Daumer as translated from folk poems of eastern European origin) proved so popular that Brahms composed a second set, New Liebeslieder Waltzes a few years later. These two sets are frequently performed by mixed choruses, less often by solo singers. And since Brahms wrote the accompaniment in such a way that all of the music material is contained in the piano parts, the sets are occasionally performed by piano duos.

Much as I love the waltzes, I had never heard them as orchestral works; Brahms scored eight of the songs from the first set, plus one from the second set, for a standard orchestra in 1870, offering them as a wedding gift to Julie Schumann, the daughter of Robert and Clara Schumann, with whom he had clearly been smitten. The Orpheus players gave them a wonderful lilt—sometimes gentle, sometimes driving vigorously—and the orchestral colors certainly added to the effect when no singers are present. Still, as a singer who has performed these waltzes a number of times, I couldn’t keep from mentally “hearing” the words as the songs unfolded, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear them without knowing those texts.

The new piece was the American premiere of Brad Mehldau’s Variations on a Melancholy Theme, for piano and orchestra. It was a reworking of a piece first conceived for solo piano for the remarkable musician Kirill Gerstein, a Russian-born, now American pianist who is equally at home in jazz and classical music, and who received the Gilmore Prize (sometimes thought of as the pianistic equivalent to the MacArthur “genius” grants) in 2010.  Gerstein premiered the original solo piano version in March 2012. Orpheus commissioned a version for piano and chamber orchestra, which they performed on a European tour with the composer as soloist; the Mechanics Hall performance was the American premiere.

Perhaps it was not mere happenstance that Brahms preceded the work on the program, since Meldahl explained that he was writing a set of classical variations using a jazz-related musical style: “I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.” The variations themselves were cast in a pattern like that of Brahms’s own Variations on a Theme of Haydn, with the theme cast in two parts, each of which is repeated, though the repetitions are jazz-style developments, not literal repeats.

The theme is a pensive one in a slow waltz tempo. The first five melodic notes (D, E-flat, E natural, F, G), a chromatic rise in all but the last interval, appears throughout the work in various ways, both thematically and as internal lines directing the harmonic movement.

The work consists of ten fairly brief variations in a wide range of moods and tempi, offering plenty of opportunity for solos from the instruments of the orchestra with, of course, many passages in which the piano joins or leads, sometimes in an improvisatory way. (The orchestral parts seem to be strictly written out, though of expressing typical jazz gestures in articulation, rhythm, and mood). Following the ten shorter variations, the work is capped off by a “Variation 11” that is by itself as long as the previous 10 variations together, thus providing a larger scale for the finale, which begins with a bluesy solo in the  clarinet and includes an improvised cadenza for the soloist before the final elaboration of the “melancholy theme.”

The performance was quite extraordinary. Meldahl, of course, was on top of his piece, but it was striking to hear the classically-trained players of Orpheus able to play the smears, slides, coloristic elements and other jazzy licks as if they had been doing it all their lives. (To be sure, modern players are far more likely to have at least some experience like this than musicians of a half-century ago. Brad Meldahl counted in this flexibility in making his arrangement of the solo work, and he must have been gratified by the result.

I would love to encounter the piece again to have more opportunity to take the measure of the variations qua variations; on a first hearing the variety of approach, even when the structure was apparent, was richly imaginative.

Finally the chamber orchestra offered its first performance ever of one of the cornerstone of the symphonic repertory, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Eroica. One might marvel that it took four decades to get to this piece, among the most frequently heard of all symphonies, yet at the same time, it is not hard to see why discretion may have played the part of valor in the delay. Like many of Beethoven’s major works, the Eroica is intensely driven, with complex rhythms that might seem absolutely to require a conductor to bring them off. (To be sure, in Beethoven’s day, performances were often “conducted” largely by the concertmaster, who gave the cue to start, after which it was every man for himself.)

The Orpheus performance featured an orchestra that was probably far closer in size to that of the ensemble at the premiere in 1805 than we normally hear in the halls of the great orchestras today; this had the benefit of making all the parts clear, even if the most energetically driven passages. The solo winds balanced beautifully with the more modest string sections.  And the ensemble, with an enviable flexibility of tension and release (the essence of this score) was shaped so clearly with the musical demands of the music, that a blindfolded listener certainly would have no clue that the ensemble was performing without a conductor. Indeed, though I’ve been thrilled at Eroica performances in many places by orchestras of all sizes under various conductors, the Orpheus performance in Worcester seemed to create the mood of awe and astonishment that must have struck the listeners of this remarkable piece when it was first performed.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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