Music Note:
Extremely Raw Notes on Orpheus at Carnegie
with Garrick Ohlsson

Every time I sit in Carnegie Hall and listen to Orpheus play, I feel very lucky. Every time. Now and then, though, Orpheus does something blitzing, and I jump out of my seat. Tonight was one of those nights. Garrick Ohlsson had a lot to do with the fabulousness, but we’d been well primed.

Let’s start with the encore, Chopin’s biggest waltz, E-Flat, Op 18. Everybody knows it by heart but it got a completely fresh performance, highly mannered in being true to the period (the very affected 25 years, 1815-1840, that we call the “Silly Quarter”). But clear and perfectly articulated, a dance for ten figures choreographed by Paul Taylor.

And go from there to cadenzas. Never before in my life have I found cadenzas interesting in the concert hall. There has always been an obligatory feel to them; “we have to do this, even though we don’t like to show off.” I’m afraid to say (which is why I’m not quite saying it) that Garrick Ohlsson made the cadenzas seem the whole point of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. A shocking idea; if there’s one Beethoven concerto that seems not to be about showing off, it’s the Fourth. And Ohlsson wasn’t showing off! He was just filling Carnegie Hall with something like the inescapable presence of a massive pipe organ as he tootled through the orthodox cadenzas — with the air of improvising them, not getting them exactly right. You know what I mean; does this run come before that trill or after? Who pays attention? I didn’t pay attention to the composition of the cadenza, that’s for sure. I was completely taken in by the playing. Music that I’ve known like the back of my hand since I was a freshman in college reared from the Carnegie stage like a new kind of animal.

At the beginning of the Beethoven, I thought that Ohlsson was doing his own thing on the runs. This is a feeling that I get when pianists begin and end a run on time but fall out of synch during the execution. Rhythms seem almost syncopated, and not in an interesting way. But long before the midpoint of the first movement, Ohlsson dropped his needle into the groove and stayed there, the beating heart (pulse) of the music. The soloist, in my view, is the real conductor of a concerto. The orchestra is with him or not. When it seems that the soloist is not with the orchestra, the effect of his playing is never more than decorative.

Enough about Ohlsson for the moment. The program began with Schubert’s Fourth. I don’t really know the work. I recognize the hooks, ah yes, this is the symphony where that happens. But this was Orpheus playing. With a little effort, I could hear the sprouts of mature Schubert pushing through the Haydn. The program notes, by the way, compared the propyleia (the slow introduction) to Haydn’s 97th, but to me it emulated the opening of The Creation. Not bad for the nineteen year-old Schubert. I felt that everyone on stage was working hard to present Schubert’s not-at-all Tragic symphony as an interesting piece of music. (This was distinct from my impression of the playing, which was one of effortlessness.) I was persuaded. I need to get another recording. (Which is unfair to the EMI-era Karajan in my library; I’ve really never listened closely to it.)

Berg’s Lyric Suite: I thought to myself before it started, maybe I’ll get it this time. And I sort of did. The music of the Second Viennese School breaks the promise that Western  music makes from the Seventeenth Century on, which is that you will always know more or less how far you are from the end of the piece. The three movements from the Lyric Suite could have been three times longer or half as long, and only the experts in the audience would have felt the difference in a musical way. But the music is pregnant with possibilities for movie soundtracks. It’s almsot a sample book, especially if you’re thinking of horror or suspense. I want to listen to this again, a lot. Maybe on my Chopin playlist!

Here’s a good one: the program misplaced the Intermission, putting it between the Schubert and the Berg. I didn’t notice,  because it would never occur to me to check to see where the intermission would fall in such a program. I expect that most of the other people sitting in the stalls knew just as well as I did that a mistake had been made, but that didn’t stop them from getting up and milling about. It was a bad high school moment. When Orpheus came back out to play the Berg, they had to sit tight for a good three minutes whilst stragglers found their seats. After the Berg, Kathleen overheard a nearby woman complain that she hadn’t heard a piano.

For Kathleen, as for me, this was one of the great nights. Orpheus is always at least wonderful. Tonight it was scary: what if we’d missed it? And I came to an odd conclusion at dinner afterward. Orpheus is proof that you do need a conductor to make most orchestras play well. Every musician who can do without one is already committed to Orpheus. Seriously, I don’t think that most symphony orchestra musicians want to work as hard as the Orpheus gang does. It was a sobering reflection: Orpheus is not the “wave of the future,” as we used to say. It’s anomalousness proves a point. The Mutis and Levines will always be with us.