Drawing Inspiration From Rilke

Gil Shaham
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has long demonstrated its mettle in Baroque and classical fare. More recently it has ventured into romantic and contemporary terrain, which is invariably harder to navigate without a conductor. 

In honor of its 40th anniversary next year Orpheus has commissioned four new pieces through its Project 440, in which 60 emerging composers were nominated and then whittled down to four via public feedback and panel reviews. The ensemble offered the premiere of “Memoriam” by Cynthia Wong, a 29-year-old Juilliard graduate, at its season-opening concert at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening.

Ms. Wong dedicated the elegiac work to her father, who died of cancer in March, and more broadly to cancer victims and their caregivers. She was also inspired by Rilke and inserted lines from his poetry (“Even his downfall was for him only a pretext for achieving his final birth”) in the score. Her piece, with sheer, oscillating textures that were elegantly conveyed, opened with a mournful introduction whose mood evolved into a more lively and humorous middle section. Darting wind fragments and fast, improvised passages over agitated strings eventually subsided into a quiet, yearning conclusion.

The first half of the program also included an indifferent rendition of Mendelssohn’s “Fair Melusina” Overture. He wrote it after hearing an opera (which he disliked) based on the same fairy tale. More convincing was Orpheus’s dynamic, buoyant and vividly accented rendition of Haydn’s Symphony No. 73, “The Hunt.”

The ensemble was joined by the gregarious violinist Gil Shaham for Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D, which concluded the program. This pinnacle of the Romantic repertory is bread and butter for full-size symphony orchestras but more provocative fare for a conductorless chamber ensemble. While Orpheus couldn’t produce the richness of sound or dramatic scope of a larger group, it did perform with energetic flair and textural clarity, offering a committed performance marred by only a few tentative moments between ensemble and soloist.

Mr. Shaham seemed to be enjoying himself, frequently flashing a wide-eyed grin to the orchestra and audience. He played with his customary depth and charisma, particularly impressive in the first-movement cadenza.

As an encore Mr. Shaham and Orpheus offered a cheery bonbon: Fritz Kreisler ’s “Schön Rosmarin.”