NEW YORK—There was no tuning. There was no conductor. Just one breath signaled the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to release a sound that stirred the core of the audience’s soul.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra played an all-Beethoven program on the evening of Jan. 25 at Carnegie Hall.
Orpheus is an unconventional group that celebrates the beauty of conventional music. For 41 years, Orpheus has democratized classical music, according to their website, by “abandoning traditional hierarchies” of orchestral leadership.
Traditionally, only smaller groups, such as quartets or trios, perform without a conductor. In fact the conductor plays a major role in determining the feeling and nuances of an orchestral piece.
But Orpheus encourages individual musicians to discuss artistic expressions, and as a group, they determine the feelings of certain passages and motifs.
It is highly difficult for an orchestra of 37 members to play in perfect rhythmic unison without a conductor, let alone perform a unified interpretation of the piece. But Orpheus proves that although it may be difficult, it is not impossible.
“Coriolan Overture” and Symphony No. 2 in D Major
In the all-Beethoven program, the group focused on the composer’s middle period, when he was dealing with hearing loss and dismal personal issues.
Perhaps the musicians were better able to find Beethoven—because they dedicated the evening to no other period or styles—and were better able to immerse themselves in the history of the music.
The performance opened with Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture.” The piece is based on a play about a Roman general who defects to the enemy to fight Rome, but who is stopped by his mother as he reaches the gate of the city.
It’s a song decorated with intense offbeat rhythmic accompaniments. Yet the orchestra of 37 musicians remained perfectly steady.
Next on the program was Symphony No. 2 in D Major. This symphony was one of the compositions that saved Beethoven from his suicidal thoughts, and it seemed that the group captured Beethoven’s message on the value of life in this performance.
The flux of the violin motif in the first movement was particularly captivating.
The orchestra was truly impressive as it flawlessly and naturally transitioned from a fortissimo to a pianissimo without any indication from a conductor. Perhaps because they did not have a conductor to fall back on, they were able sync even more with one another.
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major
Last but certainly not least, the program ended with the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor.” The pianist was Nobuyuki Tsujii, an award-winning Japanese musician who has been blind since birth.
Tsujii, a 25-year-old who is perpetually swaying rhythmically to the music, is a pianist to be reckoned with. It is not that Tsujii has a disability, but rather that he possesses a rare ability to hear and show the audience something about the music that it would not otherwise sense about Beethoven.
There was something particularly powerful about a blind musician playing a nearly deaf composer’s music. The rendition evoked a feeling of triumph and hope that a musician with five senses could not quite capture.
Needless to say, the performance ended with two encores.
Orpheus will embark on a five-concert domestic tour with Tsujii in January, followed by a major ten-concert tour to Japan with the pianist in February. The orchestra will return to Carnegie Hall on March 29th with violinist Christian Tetzlaff.