Classics and a World Premiere from Orpheus

12/12/2017

Handel, Shostakovich, Shuying Li, Stravinsky: Truls Mørk (cello), Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City. 2.12.2017. (DS)

Handel – Water Music Suite No.2 in D Major

Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107

Shuying Li – Out Came the Sun (World Premiere)

Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

Filing into Carnegie Hall, the audience was rightly abuzz with anticipation to hear the evening’s Norwegian guest soloist, Truls Mørk, with New York’s beloved home-grown, conductor-less ensemble, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. With no baton, in an act of vigilant listening, the musicians bravely took on Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1, with Mørk phrasing magnificently, and the concertmaster guided from her seat, reaching as far back as the French horn and celesta.

Despite both leading and playing, Mørk gave an unhindered and fresh performance. His vibrato contained equal elements of passion and controlled texture while a looseness of phrasing cloaked the whole concerto with an improvisational quality. Mørk’s harmonic passages were penetrating and cool, if not hypnotizing. In his hands, the cadenza emerged like a patchwork memory of the Allegretto and Moderato before it, as if ruminating on past experience.

However, it’s not just the lack of conductor that creates Orpheus’s quality, but the size of the ensemble in relation to the work. The Cello Concerto took on an extraordinarily surprising and appropriate quality of an ironic marionette show—the kind one might see in a Parisian park. With about twenty players on stage (the premiere, by Mstislav Rostropovich, was on a grand Soviet scale with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra), the piece became a theatrical representation of itself – both presenting the work but embodying its sense of separation from the original. With the ironies present in Shostakovich’s compositions and relationship to Stalinist Russia, the puppet quality only emphasized the layers of meaning.

The evening’s orchestral premiere was Shuying Li’s Out Came the Sun, inspired by maternal post-partem emotions. Though it might seem as far removed from a government-hindered, rebellious Shostakovich as one could imagine, this was not the case. Both Li and Shostakovich took inspiration from the folk lullaby, creating an unexpected bridge between the works. Out Came the Sun blended toy-like sounds (from the celesta), lullaby tunes, and dreamy textures, with surges of upward and downward sonorous cycles easily evoking a baby’s presence alongside its mother’s bittersweet, psychological turmoil. See-sawing between the intimately personal and universal, Li’s composition found structural balance between a tone poem and and a bit of postmodernism. Out Came the Sun should be worthy of many performances after its premiere.

Always deft in programming, Orpheus also performed Water Music by Handel and Pulcinella by Stravinsky. Both works—familiar even to those who might not be able to name them—bookended the concert with style.

Daniele Sahr

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