Orpheus Chamber Orchestra delivers revelatory Beethoven at Broward Center

By David Fleshler

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed an all-Beethoven program Monday night at the Broward Center.

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed an all-Beethoven program Monday night at the Broward Center.

The musicians of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra filed on stage Monday night at the Broward Center and gave an overwhelmingly successful demonstration of their radical experiment in orchestral democracy.

The musicians perform without a conductor and have done so since the orchestra’s founding in 1972, forgoing a baton-waving dictator in the same antiestablishment spirit that led to communes and food co-ops. They performed an all-Beethoven program at the Broward Center’s smaller Amaturo Theater, which was just the right size for this concert.

Despite the absence of a conductor, their performance of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was as tight and precise as could be, a particularly impressive accomplishment considering the sharp attacks and abrupt rests that punctuate the work. If the performance lacked that last edge of ferocity and headlong motion that can really put over this overture, this was still a fine performance, full of grim, terse drama.

But the Orpheus musicians’ performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 was nothing short of a revelation. For those accustomed to the usual thick, heavy performances by larger ensembles, the clarity of lines was striking from the very beginning, the string and wind figures brought off with remarkable beauty of tone and grace of phrasing. The transparency of the performance revealed interior voices that are usually buried, yet there was an overarching sense of melodic line that left no doubt where the music was going. Even when playing pianissimo, the music never degenerated into vague murmuring, but retained a crispness that carried the notes through the hall.

The second movement came off with comparable grace, and in the middle, swirling drama, with bassoons and strings combining for moments of great musical tension. In the third movement, winds provided resonant, deftly phrased melodies over an accompaniment in the strings.

The finale was full of rough humor and high spirits, as the ensemble brought the symphony to a vigorous close. The performance showed that the power of Beethoven’s music doesn’t depend on massed forces or deafening volume, but can emerge through the sort of musical rigor, clarity and intensity with which the Orpheus musicians performed it.

For the second half, the orchestra was joined by soloist Nobuyuki Tsujii for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Blind since birth, the Japanese pianist came to the attention of the world when he shared the gold medal in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Led slowly on stage by the concertmaster, he sat down at the piano, explored the keyboard a bit with his fingers and then thundered into the broad ascending notes that open the concerto, becoming the convincing protagonist of Beethoven’s musical drama.

Nobuyuki Tsujii

Nobuyuki Tsujii

His outgoing style, from the grandeur of the opening notes to the rumbling power he brought to darker interior passages, captured the “Emperor” concerto’s heroic spirit. Tone color was a bit unvaried, and at times the music seemed to need something more detailed and less emphatic, but there’s no question he brought off the movement with style.

Tsujii brought a velvety tone to the long melodic lines of the second movement, sounding like an entirely different pianist from the extroverted power player of the first movement. He played the last movement with galloping energy, yet brought a smooth, seamless tone to the running figures that accompanied melodies in the orchestra.

After the final chords, the hall erupted in applause and cheers that yielded two encores. In the first, Tsujii and the orchestra performed the Larghetto from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26. Here his tone seemed too heavy for the light, graceful melody.

He seemed more in his element in the second encore, Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, taken at blistering speed that turned the rumbling, roiling figures in the bass into a bit of a blur. But that’s a quibble, and anyone who hears Tsujii has to acknowledge this remarkable pianist’s achievement in mastering the classical keyboard repertoire by touch and memory alone, and performing it at a world-class level.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Orpheus Chamber Orchestra delivers revelatory Beethoven at Broward Center”

  1. Posted Jan 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm by M. L. Liu

    It is good to read a detailed review that is not overloaded with hyperbole. I may not agree with every word in it, but I appreciate the honesty of this reviewer.

    Congratulations to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and to my beloved Nobuyuki Tsujii for a great start for their 2014 U.S. and Japan tour!

  2. Posted Jan 22, 2014 at 8:56 am by Jung

    A Gobsmacker! Astounding performances by all.

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