This past Saturday, I found myself listening to live music in the middle of New Jersey, on the upper deck of Morris Museum’s car park. I was surrounded by mask-wearing, bundled-up – temperatures are already dropping here – eager spectators. Everyone was sitting on an improvised chair brought from home and placed within the confining space of a rectangle drawn with chalk on the asphalt. It was the first classical music event I have attended in more than six months. Who would have thought?

The Orpheus CO above the Morris Museum, NJ © Jack Grassa
The Orpheus CO above the Morris Museum, NJ
© Jack Grassa

The performance was, in fact, continuing a series started back in August. For this occasion, the museum invited several members of the famed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to perform during a red-orange sunset. The instrumentalists suggested an hour-long programme featuring a pair of marvellous, unfortunately seldom-played scores for string sextet.

The first, just over-ten-minutes long, is actually a segment of the score of Richard Strauss’ last opera, Capriccio. The sextet is composer Florestan's submission to the competition against Olivier (the poet) for the love of Countess Madeleine. The opera ends with the Countess still undecided between the two candidates. More importantly, the centuries-long debate about the relative powers of music and poetry, prominently featured in the 1942 work, is also not settled. In fact, the decision is easy to make for Capriccio itself. The elaborate sonic landscape is clearly more interesting than the meandering libretto without denouement. The music is typical for Strauss’ late style, oscillating between the radical nature of his early music and the composer’s expression of admiration for Baroque and Classical works. The sextet, with its gorgeous first theme, played by the first violin, received a fully balanced performance from the six members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Sonorities blended well and the musicians were able to successfully convey the Metamorphosen-foreshadowing sadness that permeates the score. 

Members of the Orpheus CO © Jack Grassa
Members of the Orpheus CO
© Jack Grassa

The more-substantive work on the programme, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, has also a – somehow stretched – connection to the world of opera: one of its main themes, the glorious duet for violin and cello in the second movement, was conceived while the composer was finishing writing The Queen of Spades in Florence. Listening to the expansive score, with its thematic wealth and elaborated developments, it is hard to believe that Tchaikovsky complained several times in his letters about the difficulties he was encountering in composing the sextet. With Eric Wyrick taking over the first violin chair, the group of Orpheus players demonstrated again the unity of an impromptu ensemble, although made up of instrumentalists that have played numerous times together. The first movement, with the two contrasting themes, brought forward by the first violin, was relentlessly driven forward. In the Andante cantabile, the violin and cello dialogue on top of pizzicatos had weight, while the middle section sounded mysterious. The six-part fugue in the Finale, that the composer was initially afraid would sound too dissonant, was rendered with outmost clarity. The third-movement trio had an evident dance-like quality (Tchaikovsky was thinking about The Nutcracker at the time of composing it). Rapid or slow, motifs anchored in Russian folklore sounded – as they should – soulful, even if occasionally too saccharine.

Unfortunately, the overall performance was marred not only by a subpar amplification system, but also by the noise of small aircraft flying in and out the nearby airport. Apart from this, it was still an event I have longed for.