Who needs a conductor, anyway? Obviously most serious orchestras do, not just to have direction from the podium, but to plan programming, develop repertoire, lead tours and generally serve as the public face of the organization. But if there is a case to be made for letting the musicians run the show, the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra does it as well as anyone. Especially with a soloist like Jan Lisiecki. At the tender age of 24, the Canadian piano phenomenon already has a shelf full of prestigious awards – most with the notation “youngest winner ever” attached – and four albums on Deutsche Grammophon. The most recent is a Mendelssohn compilation recorded last year with the Orpheus, currently being showcased on a seven-city European tour that included a stop at Prague Spring.

Jan Lisiecki and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra © Prague Spring | Zdeněk Chrapek
Jan Lisiecki and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
© Prague Spring | Zdeněk Chrapek

Itʼs an ideal pairing. Lisiecki and the Orpheus musicians play in the same vein, with virtuoso-level skills and a feel for the music that borders on intuitive. Which is not to say they sound the same. Lisiecki has his own fully-formed, distinctive voice, while the orchestra serves up spirited interpretations with the richness and depth of an ensemble twice its size. But there is chemistry in the compatibility, and the overall effect is inspired, a rare and captivating combination of discipline and spontaneity.

This was in full gorgeous bloom on Mendelssohnʼs Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor, which the orchestra imbued with uncommon fire and energy. Without losing any of the romantic contours or lyrical qualities of the piece, the players struck an upbeat tempo and level of intensity that never wavered, setting the pace for a colorful, exhilarating ride.

In contrast to the orchestraʼs formal look and professional demeanor, Lisiecki came onstage looking like a slightly disheveled teenager who just got off a skateboard. But once he started playing, he showed a breathtaking mastery of the keyboard, gliding through complex passages with dazzling speed and a remarkably soft touch. Much has been made of Lisieckiʼs preternatural maturity, but at least on this occasion, it was his youthful enthusiasm that stood out, brightening the music and lending it another dimension. And throughout the entire piece he maintained a lively, sparkling dialogue with the orchestra that benefited from not having an intermediary.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra © Prague Spring | Zdeněk Chrapek
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
© Prague Spring | Zdeněk Chrapek

The program opened with the European premiere of Records from a Vanishing City, a brief tone poem by New York violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery. Orpheus regularly commissions new work, especially from minorities, and this one reflects an upbringing in a musical melting pot, with echoes of American jazz, Caribbean dance music and traditional African songs. The piece is rich in references but never really develops any legs, floating through a textural haze. The orchestra gave it heft with fine attention to details.

And if there were any doubters left in the audience, the concluding piece, Mendelssohnʼs “Italian” Symphony, offered a convincing demonstration of what dedicated musicians can do without following a baton. Vivid, animated and razor-sharp, the symphony had an organic quality that typically takes years for a good orchestra to achieve, even with a practiced hand on the podium. For the Orpheus players, it comes as naturally as breathing.

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