Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Music Ex Machina: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Premieres New Work by Alex Mincek at Schermerhorn

Posted By on Wed, Apr 25, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
  • Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Orpheus’ music made the gods weep, earning him the title “the father of songs.” Orpheus Chamber Orchestra honors his legacy with “musical conversations” performed without a conductor. The group delighted the audience at Schermerhorn Symphony Center last night with a program that included the premiere of a piece that carries their namesake’s legacy forward.

The program united pieces that could have easily been lost to history: Franz Schreker’s Scherzo was never published in his lifetime; It took Beethoven’s publisher seven years to accept Romance No. 2; The “Grétry” Violin Concerto was composed upon request as a competition piece by Henri Vieuxtemps, principally a violinist and not a composer; Mozart composed Symphony No. 40 during an exceptionally productive period when he completed three symphonies in eight weeks — during a time when he was down on his luck, broke and desperate. In all of these cases, it seems Orpheus himself had a hand in keeping this music alive.

The fact that these pieces did survive shaped classical music. Mozart retroactively incorporated clarinet parts into Symphony No. 40, bringing the instrument mainstream. Romance No. 2 and The Grétry Violin Concerto are now two of the most popular works by their respective composers. The two pieces were performed at the Schermerhorn by Grammy Award-winning violinist Viviane Hagner, who played a Stradivarius in a floor-length silk gown.

Despite Hagner’s breathtaking performance, the highlight of the evening was the premiere of Pendulum IX: "Machina/Humana.” The piece is the last of four pieces commissioned by Project 440 in honor of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s 40th anniversary. ("440" refers to the frequency of concert A, the note orchestras tune to.) In the absence of composer Alex Mincek, the piece took on a life of its own.

Pendulum IX: "Machina/Humana.” opened with flighty sections of violin screeches. The percussionist switched between sandpaper blocks, woodblock, xylophone, hand crank and a gong. The use of space and found sounds recalls John Cage, and the complex dissonances invoke Stravinsky, with swelling and mounting masses of sound turning over each other. Muted horn fanfares answered emergent phrases from the strings. Two flutes played a unison note separated by a semitone, a reference to Javanese gamelan music, in which the instruments are intentionally tuned apart to produce fluttering notes.

The stringed instruments slapped percussively on the fingerboard and tapped the wood of the bow on the strings. Conversely, the percussionist played what looked like a giant wire head massager with a violin bow, creating ethereal ringing tones. In these alternating exchanges, the sections apparently switched roles.

The merging of the strings and percussion gets at the deeper meaning of the piece: The Singularity, the hypothetical future event when man and machine become one. Following the metaphor of a pendulum, Mincek starts off with high energy, alternates sections, and slows to an end, bringing all instruments to a common sound.

The piece received warm applause and mixed reactions. An enthusiastic middle-aged man said, “I expected the composer to be here. That’s pretty interesting to premiere a piece on a road trip,” to which he timidly added, “I liked it.” “Didn’t do anything for me,” an older woman sitting next to him replied, “But it must have been difficult to play.”

While Orpheus is visiting the Schermerhorn, the Nashville Symphony is preparing to visit OCO’s home, Carnegie Hall. The NSO is performing at the Spring for Music Festival, which Orpheus opened last year. Like the elements of the pendulum in Mincek’s piece, Orpheus and the NSO are swinging into each other’s domains temporarily. We can only hope that one day they merge into a “singular” super orchestra — before the actual Singularity, of course.

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