What is musicality? The standard definition, ‘tastefulness and accomplishment in music; the quality of being melodious and tuneful,’ says exactly nothing. What defines that quality, what indicates tastefulness and accomplishment? Musicality is the essential quality in performance, noticeable by its presence and absence, and something every active, sensitive listener should be able to hear. So just what is it? Well, it’s something I heard defined in performance last week.

Musicality is the fundamental quality of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; they couldn’t exist as a performing unit without it. Examining what they do and how they accomplish it brings us deep into an understanding of the word. Though they’re best known for performing without a conductor, what really sets them apart is their chamber quality, which is more than just a measure of numbers. There are plenty of musicians who keep solid time and can navigate their way through tricky phrases and rhythms; conductors exist because they, ideally, do a great deal more than that, and the Orpheus does a great deal more than that. They play like a chamber ensemble in their unanimity of phrasing, their transparency, and their highly conversational manner. And they listen and respond to each other in ways an orchestra doesn’t have to when a conductor is doing that for them. Most importantly, they come to a consensus on what the music means to them and communicate that directly to the audience.

You can hear this sense of meaning in everything they play. There is a purpose behind every note and line, the intention to shape a pitch, shade a color, point a rhythm and mark the intake and exhalation of breath in the music towards an expressive end. This is the fundamental level of musical meaning and a definition of musicality, and it makes their performances deeply pleasurable; even the most familiar music has an involving sense of freshness and surprise, things sound in ways that one comes to never expect. Their concert this past Tuesday was a reminder of this quality, and a complete joy.

Orpheus opened with one of Stravinsky’s great miniatures, his Octet for winds. It’s an excellent little piece, colorful, transparent and good-natured, and to this the musicians added a mellow, beautifully democratic sound and a lyrical expression. It was a conversation where the players sang, not spoke, to each other. The waltz variation in the second movement was graceful, the playing relaxed, but not slow, and witty throughout. The final blend of instruments was gorgeous.

The orchestra’s impressive musicianship was augmented by the young violinist Ryu Goto, soloist in the Bruch Violin Concerto. Orpheus’ nature means they play concertos, and work with soloists, like no other orchestra. Without a conductor, all the musicians must listen to each other, and the result is a feeling of sympathy and of working together to make music, with the one player taking the lead by consensus. While the concerto form has an inherent adversarial quality, that was subsumed in this performance. It helps that Bruch’s piece is as much like an instrumental song with the orchestra as accompanist as it is a showpiece for bravura playing. Goto’s brilliant sound stood out from the ensemble, and he’s a confident, charismatic and expressive player with a focus on projecting meaning rather than showing off his technique. His long, fine phrasing was complemented by the orchestra’s precise rhythms and wonderful blend of sound. It seemed like a friendly and involved competition between who could produce a more beautiful sound, and the audience won. Bruch’s piece may be a slightly lesser version of the Brahms Concerto, but that also means that a musician has to bring a lot of committed musical thinking to it to make it stand out, and this was a standout performance, Goto intensely lyrical and songful, tender without bathos in the ‘Adagio,” soloist and orchestra making easy work of an emphasis on the pointed rhythm in the finale, pausing to underline it without ever losing the forward flow of the music.

Goto’s encore, Paganini’s famous showpiece Caprice No. 24, Nathan Milstein’s dazzling arrangement of Paganini, Paganiniana, was even more musically impressive. It’s perhaps the most popular bravura violin encore and is a real technical showpiece, full of impressive double-stops and fast, close fingering in the left hand. His complete control of his instrument and forceful playing went far beyond the exhibitionist quality of the music and dug out poetry that had never been apparent before. I can’t imagine a better demonstration of musicality. Except perhaps for the orchestra’s playing of the Beethoven Symphony No. 2 that completed the concert. This was impressive in so many ways; as rhythmically lithe and sonically balanced as expected from a small orchestra, but with a sound big enough to rival their peers, the performance was vibrant in every moment. Every note sounded fresh and alive, played with commitment and meaning, there was so much care and attention paid to every phrase, nothing was thrown away. The weight of the piece was also perfectly judged, both refined and powerful. When Orpheus played the first movement with real brio, the music had strength to carry time, light enough to be swift but with enough substance to stay in touch with the ground, and the luminous ‘Larghetto’ esteemed the beauty of the music with charm and without ponderous reverence. This ability to make a concerted sound, to move substantial ideas forward effortlessly, is top-level musicianship. Orpheus make everything sound great.

Musicality, musical skill, is essential to musical rhetoric, the ability to convince the listener. Great musical rhetoric, like Goto playing the Paganini Caprice, convinces us that the music is greater than seemed possible. In another excellent program in what was a great Russian Stravinsky festival, Valery Gergiev, the New York Philharmonic and pianist Denis Matsuev convinced the audience that Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra was not just a skillful, enjoyable concerto with limited ambitions, but a true masterwork. They did this with their rhetoric, and their dialect was power.

Matsuev is a dynamic, physically expressive player and Gergiev is always willing to constructively push music to extremes to see what happens. Together, they went against the immediate characteristics of the piece; a spry melodiousness, grace, sympathetic dialogue between orchestra and soloist. Matsuev’s entrance was explosive and athletic, and set the tone for the performance. The physical strength of his playing was consistently balanced with a fundamental wit and a lack of self-seriousness, and musically his articulation and rhythms were as clear and precise as could be; when music is played as transparently as this, it can bear a great deal of interpretive weight without strain. The opening movement was brilliantly exciting, the baroque language in the middle slow movement was stunning – the orchestra maintaining steady phrasing and tempo, while Matsuev explored the kind of within-the-bar rubato that is heard in the best Bach playing to extraordinary effect, filling up space with an expansive array of ideas and suggestions. The finale was rollicking and swaggering, the musicians adding Gershwin to Stravinsky’s original model of Tchaikovsky, and like the previous playing it worked so well, every measure getting better than the last. The playing was breathtaking, but the ideas were unexpected and revelatory.

Gergiev and orchestra alone played two other great works, the Symphony in C and, in the second half, the complete 1911 version of Petrushka. The Symphony is one of Stravinsky’s most Neo-Classical works, modeled after Haydn, and Gergiev gave the music great shape, subtly but clearly revealing the sonata form buried inside the work. The dramatic opening statement had a scintillating crescendo, and the music moved throughout without ever losing a feeling of confident relaxation. The divided violins produced great results here, making the polyphonic writing clear and fascinating, even with some sloppiness in the ‘Allegretto’ movement. The ballet also was a bit sloppy, even if full of energy, in the dazzling, piping, crashing opening statement, and this might have been caused by excitement, because what came after was tremendous. The coordination came together in the bits of woozy waltz at the appearance of the Organ Grinder, and the playing became intensely musical, with the feeling of the composer speaking with great physical power directly through the musicians. Gergiev made the bassoon parts at the start of the ‘Legerdemain Scene’ heavily atmospheric via the slightest slowing of tempo in the second bar, and that attention to detail opened up an expanse of dramatic tension through the end of the piece. The moment when Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina appear was spine tingling; the famous polytonal phrases in Petrushka’s room were played with real attention to articulation. The inherent tension that Stravinsky builds through that scene, and the following one in the Moor’s room, was augmented by colorful playing from the orchestra, constantly expressive in phrasing and dynamics, with all around excellence from the woodwinds and Eric Huebner on the piano. Gergiev pushed the tempo of the music up to Petrushka’s death to powerful effect, and then made it achingly slow and careful for the conclusion, the final F-sharp plangent and haunting. This was as expressive, dramatic and resonant a Petrushka as one will hear.

The final example of musicality came from the young pianist Mikhel Poll, who gave an intimate recital at Estonian House. He played mostly Romantic music from Central Europe, appropriate for a reedy, longhaired young man with the hands and fingers to handle the repertoire. He began with modern works from Eduard Tubin and Arvo Pärt, although Tubin’s Ballade on a Theme by Mart Saar was, except for some plain harmonies and bright, major key modulations at the start, very much in the style of Chopin. These were well-made, involving works, with beauty and emotional depth, the latter’s Variations of the Healing of Arinushka was moving without bathos, but Poll seemed to be playing each a little too fast, a lightly aggressively, as if nervousness was getting in between himself and the meaning of the music. His right hand articulation at the start of the ‘Ondine’ movement from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was a bit inconsistent, but this is where he slowly overcame his stiffness and began to play in a fluid manner, letting the tension, expression and power in the music speak for itself – musicality is often, in great works, about getting out of the way as much as plunging in. The Ravel had a fine overall shape, and was followed by a thrilling ‘Chasse-neige’ from Lizst’s Trancendental Studies. Poll was sharp and blistering, pulling out the intensity from the music and making it sound almost easy. He knew exactly what he wanted in Lizst’s arrangement of Schubert’s Erlkönig; an aggressive opening and an incisive balance of agitation, lyricism and foreboding. Poll was at his best in Schumann’s great Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17. The opening movement was involving, fluid and rapturous but with a bracing toughness, and the chorale section was very fine. He clearly understood the structure of the work, which is not a simple matter, and knew what different sections and phrases meant to him and how they related to each other. That’s the way complex pieces like this sound focused and exciting in the hands of the best musicians, it’s the intellectual aspect of musicality that connects the brain to the ears. Everything worked in his playing, he held onto the line and form throughout the striding ‘Mässig’ movement, and showed a real understanding of Schumann’s interpolation of the theme from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. The Fantasie can be a highly poetic piece, but Poll played it with an expression of earthy emotions, which was both appropriate to the music and refreshing to hear. In this most difficult piece on his program, he revealed an excellent breadth and focus, and superb musicality.