Orpheus stops in Seattle for a concert of music inspired by Bach and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

In the space of less than a week two soloists have had to bow out of Benaroya Hall concerts.  For the Seattle Symphony, it was Louis Lortie.  On Monday, however, Janine Jansen was unable to perform with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who had come to town for one performance.  Jansen was set to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major – a piece she recently recorded – for the second half of the concert program.  

Taking her place, fortunately, was an equally talented replacement – Henning Kraggerud.  Kraggerud is one of number of music talents coming out of Norway these days.  Norway and its neighbors are turning out conductors, composers, and instrumentalists. And who can ignore the Oslo and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestras, two of the world’s finest orchestras.  Kraggerud is no slouch.  He has played with some of the best orchestras in the world – Budapest Festival Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony for instance – and is well documented on disk with the Naxos label.  As a fill in for the ailing Jansen, he gave a rousing, sharply drawn, expertly played performance of Beethoven’s concerto.

The Orpheus’s concert on Monday was remarkable for the amount of 20th and even 21st Century music on the program – Stravinsky, Webern, and a newer piece by Aaron Jay Kernis.  These three pieces were connected by their relationship to JS Bach.  Stravinsky’s work pays homage to Bach’s style, Webern’s is an orchestration of a Bach piece, and Kernis’s is part of a series of new commissions dubbed “New Brandenbergs.” 

Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto opened the half.  The piece emphasizes Stravinsky’s early 20th Century, neo-classical style.  The piece was commissioned in the United States but written in Switzerland.  Stravinsky had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and entered a Swiss sanatorium to be with his wife and two daughters who were also sick.  During the stay, Stravinsky immersed himself in the music of JS Bach; even borrowing from JS Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 3.  The Orpheus’s strings pleasantly framed the lithe, supple playing of the ensemble’s wind players – including an excellent contribution by flutist Susan Palma Nidel.  Stravinsky’s contrapuntal ideas were clearly articulated by the orchestra. 

Webern’s orchestrated version of Bach’s Ricerare from the Musical Offering came next.  Webern’s treatment is distinctly modern.  Fugal lines are divided among numerous instruments, which gives the realization an icy sound.  The Orpheus was able to warm the piece up somewhat with their playing, but by the end the piece still retained some of its chilliness.

The world premiere of Kernis’s Concerto With Echoes ended the first half and the Orpheus’s Bach tribute.  Kernis’s concerto is the result of an effort by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to commission “New Brandenberg” concertos.  Describing these new commissions as New Brandenbergs seems presumptuous.  Kernis’s concerto mirrors Bach’s sixth – even using the same instrumentation – and employs complex, sometimes dense harmonies which would be familiar for people who have heard other Kernis pieces played and premiered in Seattle.  Concerto With Echoes was interesting to hear, but lacked the timeless quality and genius of the Old Brandenbergs.  The Orpheus musicians transitioned nicely from the delineated harmonies of the first two pieces to Kernis’s complicated textures and counterpoint.  

As concerts go, Beethoven’s concerto tends to grab the audience’s focus more than other pieces – no matter how thoughtfully the rest of the concert is programmed.  This was the case again when the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra came to town last week.  As an idea, a half devoted to Bach through the ideas of 20th and 21st Century composers is a worthy concept.  However, when it precedes one of, if not the most beloved violin concerto in the repertory, it is a concept without much impact, no matter how fine the playing.   

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