The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra morphed into a vibrant sonification of Manhattan's Lower East Side during the New York première of Jessie Montgomery's Records from a Vanishing City at Carnegie Hall. The conductorless chamber orchestra sounded fantastic – clean and bright – all evening. Yet on a program of otherwise fairly standard repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, and Bizet), Ms Montgomery's piece was a breath of fresh air. Musical styles from avant-garde jazz to Angolan lullabies quarreled and overlapped, keeping our ears pricked for the duration of the piece. Ms Montgomery's records brought not only the diverse noises and rhythms of New York City, but an array of world musics and melodies, to life. From a Gershwinesque wailing clarinet to the vaguely tonal pulsing of the strings running like traffic throughout the piece, Ms Montgomery's piece was a joy to listen to. The colorful mélange of unexpected textures and harmonies livened up a program that was otherwise heavy on repeated expositions and other familiar formulas.

Jessie Montgomery © Jiyang Chen
Jessie Montgomery
© Jiyang Chen

Prior to the première, just after intermission, Ms Montgomery was joined onstage by core violist Dov Scheindlin, who asked her about the genesis of the piece. She explained that her childhood growing up on the Lower East Side throughout the 1980s and 90s had been rich in art and music. When a close friend died and left behind his LP collection, she was inspired to amalgamate the different musical styles found on them into her latest compositional endeavor. "So, the 'records' of the title are not just memories but LPs?" Mr Scheindlin asked, to which Ms Montgomery agreed, also acknowledging her excitement at having her "hometeam orchestra" perform the work. In the vein of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, the three sections of Ms Montgomery's work trekked through a series of quotations and textures. The pace moved so quickly and there was so much overlap in style that it was difficult to get a handle on during first listen; still, the exciting and challenging work left little snippets running through my head afterwards.

Bizet's Symphony in C major is always going to sound a little bland after a piece like Records from a Vanishing City, but Orpheus transitioned fluidly back to the balance and restraint of the Classical sound. Bizet wrote this precocious symphony at age 17, as a student at the Paris Conservatory, and one can hear echoes of his later operas in the frolicking arpeggios and trickling runs: I could imagine people in ballgowns milling about against a cardboard backdrop during the first movement. The lyrical second movement sounded luminous in Orpheus' careful delivery. In spite of a few clumsy moments, the musicians sounded fantastic during the runaway third movement, which despite the extreme tempo they played with conviction and grace.

The first half of the program had consisted of Mozart's overture to La clemenza di Tito and Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. The Mozart was the ideal stately concert opener, played with plenty of pizzazz. The Beethoven was similarly spirited, though soloist Christian Zacharias did not always match their lively energy. Mr Zacharias, whose recordings as a pianist and as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne have received acclaim, sounded confident and, for the most part, precise. He has a strong yet sensitive touch, and the piano part sounded impressive if occasionally sedate. Yet during the first movement, his left hand volume overpowered the right hand during important passages, rendering the higher passages barely audible. His tempo was at times uneven and his fingerwork not entirely clean, though the third movement cadenza was scrupulously vigorous. Despite the slight disjunct between Mr Zacharias and Orpheus, this was overall a polished interpretation, bringing a bit of warmth and shine to a rainy day in New York City.

***11