Go See: Small Orchestras 2010-11

This town is big enough for more than one orchestra. Along with the Philharmonic, there is the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Met Opera Orchestra, and, among the numerous small orchestras that play short season schedules, two unique ensembles, the American Composers Orchestra and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Between those two is a substantial and satisfying season of classical music, from the Classical era to the present, with star guests, surprises and the expectation of top level playing.

The ACO is dedicated to playing the music of American Composers, of course, with an emphasis on contemporary music in particular. The group is playing at a high level, as I heard in several of last season’s concerts, and they have a fine new music director in George Manahan. Their season consists of four concerts and opens October 15 with what might be the single most enticing program of any concert this season; a piece from Jacob Druckman, New York City premiers of music from Alvin Singleton and Claude Vivier and world premiers of commissioned music from Wang Jie and John Luther Adams. Vivier and Adams in particular are two excellent, idiosyncratic composers who are woefully underplayed in this city.

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John Luther Adams, photo by Donald Lee

The seasons continues with more world premieres and culminates in performances of absolutely brand new music; the Playing it UNsafe concert and public sessions of new orchestral and jazz composers readings. The ACO describes Playing in UNsafe as a “professional research and development lab” built around the process of composers writing scores and developing them lab workshops, open to the public, culminating in a concert on March 4. Composers in this season’s project include Joan La Barbara and musical man of the year Henry Threadgill. I will be reporting on the lab process with an inside view as the project moves along, which I think will be a great opportunity for non-musicians to get some insight into the process of composing and working on music from conception to concert. Stay tuned for details.

Orpheus programs music that covers the classical tradition from the 18th century to contemporary times. What is unique about this group is that they are a conductor-less orchestra. They rotate the onstage leader, who generally sits in the concertmaster’s chair, and develop their interpretive consensus through the rehearsal process (and like the ACO, I hope to report from the inside on how Orpheus makes this work). The result is playing at the very highest technical and musical level. It’s difficult to describe just how good they are in performance. One important thing a conductor does with an orchestra is to direct the traffic, which is more than just keeping time. It involves keeping rhythm and pulse organized for a large ensemble, ensuring that instruments enter at the right moments, adjusting dynamics levels across the group. Orpheus does all that, and much more, they play with a unanimity of ideas, with the sense that they have all contributed something in developing the manner in which they are playing; how phrases should be shaped, what instrumental balances to favor, how to color things musically, intellectually and emotionally. Seeing them play, one can hear how they, each and all, are both playing their parts and listening to each other simultaneously. The music is active, responsive and alive. They perform at the highest levels, technically and expressively.

Their programs are satisfying; go to the five in this year’s season and you will get a rich survey of the tradition. Composers on the schedule include Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Berg, Prokofiev, Britten, Hartmann and Penderecki. Orpheus is also a superb accompanist to soloists, and this season they will host Garrick Ohlsson (this Thursday, October 14), Kate Royal, Vadim Gluzman, Rudolf Buchbinder and Arabella Steinbacher. Go.

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