The 21st century orchestra often programs concerts logically to explore stylistic epochs, approach comparisons among composers, or develop clever narratives. The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman, however, presented an evening of music loosely connected across several centuries, effectively pressing shuffle on the classical music jukebox.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra © Matt Dine
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
© Matt Dine
Johann Christian, the “London”, Bach revolutionized England’s music business in the mid-18th century when he and gambist Carl Friedrich Abel began selling subscriptions to public concerts. Paired with other new works of the time, Bach’s Symphony in G minor would have been premiered on one of these revolutionary concerts. This symphony, performed here without keyboard continuo, diverges from the complexities of the composer’s father and instead simplifies melodic and harmonic constructs, honing in on the idea of contrast. Orpheus is organic, and an electricity constantly flows through the ensemble from player to player. Bach’s Sturm und Drang was the perfect outlet for this orchestra to channel their electricity into passion and fury.  

Zuckerman joined Orpheus for Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major and Beethoven’s Romance no. 1. Zuckerman did not step on the stage to conduct from the soloist’s position, as many often do, but instead joined the ensemble as a welcomed guest. Projecting a luminous and crispy tone, he postured a very relaxed presence on stage, unfolding Mozart’s grand design with surprisingly Romantic-leaning cadenzas and milking Beethoven’s chorale-like melody for every possible dribble of lyricism.

The New York première of Harold Meltzer’s Vision Machine paid homage to the city’s quirky architecture, specifically to a building in Chelsea by architect Jean Nouvel where one-bedrooms can run you upwards of $2m. Meltzer derived inspiration from thoughtful observation both inside and outside of the building, which led to a spectrum of varying experiences. Aside from the oddly detailed yet alluring programmatic context of Vision Machine, the piece cyclically begins and ends with a wind choir, building Copland-esque harmonic blocks that enter with a punch and melt into the background like shooting stars. The work has an overall sense of Americana, which persists through the use of Coplandesque open harmonies and subtle orchestration reminiscent of John Williams’ film scores. The ever-shifting melodic and harmonic structures possibly allude to Meltzer’s own shifting perception of Nouvel’s West 19th Street, but whatever the implied narrative might be, the resulting effect continuously evolves before returning home again – a pseudo-development into a recapitulation. Nevertheless, Meltzer’s instrumentation mirrored that of the Ravel for a seamless transition back to the 20th century.

While the entire ensemble deserves credit for their pristine triumph, oboist Roni Gal-Ed executed fearless leadership in her role in Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, which is often referred to, in double-reed circles, as Le Tombeau de hautbois. Ravel’s Symbolist masterwork pays homage to both early French music and fallen comrades in the Great War, giving prominence to the oboe as a nod to Baroque instrumentation. Gal-Ed’s unwavering focus in the contoured pentachords of the Prélude and dexterously crafted phrases in the Meneut awarded her a much-deserved pat on the back from both her audience and her fellow musicians.