BWW Review: ORPHEUS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA WITH MAHAN ESFAHANI, HARPSICHORD at 92nd St. Y
The late Sir Thomas Beecham, music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was known for speaking epigrammatically. One of his most famous quotes had to do with the harpsichord. He was not fond of the instrument and likened it (paraphrasing a lot here) to the sound of two skeletons doing improper things on a tin roof.
If Sir Thomas had attended the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (in a smaller ensemble formation than usual) concert featuring harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on May 8th, he would almost certainly have changed his mind. Mr. Esfahani, a young Iranian-born, United States-raised musician, performed two rarely heard works for harpsichord and small ensemble. Manuel De Falla (1876-1946) composed the Concerto for Harpsichord, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Cello in 1926 for the celebrated harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. To ensure that the harpsichord's quiet sound would not be completely covered by a full orchestra, de Falla deliberately scored this piece for only five instruments. Although the same instrumentation was used at this concert, Mr. Esfahani's harpsichord was amplified by two well-placed and sensitively calibrated microphones. The kind acoustics in Kaufmann Hall also aided in carrying the sound. Mr. Esfahani and the ensemble roared out of the starting gate during the opening statement of the concerto, making the audience sit up in their seats. His steely fingers easily conquered the complex piece. It was literally all over the place on the harpsichord. Mr. Esfahani and the ensemble had some tricky rhythmic moments, especially in the third movement (Vivace) which they negotiated with ease. The dance-like rhythms, trills, and ornaments were reminiscent of the Baroque style. The fact that Mr. Esfahani was smiling broadly at the finish, as were the other musicians, was convincing evidence that they were having a grand time playing the piece. This clearly carried over to the audience, which responded with enthusiastic applause.
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) is not a household name in the Pantheon of well-known composers. Yet he had a huge musical output, including six symphonies, fifteen operas, and a very large, varied body of other music. Among his chamber music works is the Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, H.246 (1935). While the harpsichord took center stage, a piano was also involved to lend its support. Composed with a nod to both Classical and Baroque periods, Martinu created a piece that was full of interesting twists and turns, which included a few notes of J.S. Bach's Second "Brandenburg" Concerto. Mr. Esfahani took this music and turned it into a conversation with the piano and instrumental ensemble. He drew expressive sounds from what is an essentially expressionless instrument. Mr.Esfahani is a thoughtful virtuoso, and Landowska would be proud (and maybe even a little envious).
The concert consisted of these pieces and two others arranged for small ensemble without a soloist. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) completed the Quintet for Piano and Winds in 1784 and considered it to be one of his finest works. French composer Jean Françaix (1912-1997) for some reason decided it would sound just as good without the piano and arranged it in 1995 for strings and winds, one to a part. He called it Wind Quintet in E flat Major, K.452, also known as "Nonetto." The string players sat opposite the wind players, with the bass in the center between them, and looked for all the world like it was going to be strings versus winds. Unfortunately, that is what it sounded like, with the strings frequently losing dynamic volume to the winds. Françaix' arrangement just did not work. While it was well-played by the valiant musicians, the result would have been better if Françaix had left well enough alone. Some compositions are not meant for such changes. This is one of them.
The final piece on the program was perennial audience favorite Til Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche(Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) Op. 128 composed by Richard Strauss in 1895. Artfully arranged for a "nonet" of four winds and five strings by Australian violist Brett Dean in 1995, the piece told much of Til's "story" with clarity and a sense of humor.
It is always a pleasure to attend a concert by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, even in truncated form. This was their final concert at the Y for this season. There is much more to come in the Fall!