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BWW Review: ORPHEUS AT LOTS OF STRINGS at Morris Museum, Morristown NJ

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Fiddlers on the roof (of the parking garage!)

BWW Review: ORPHEUS AT LOTS OF STRINGS at Morris Museum, Morristown NJ

2020 has not exactly been a stellar year for...very much at all. One casualty has been live classical music. While some people have barely noticed its absence, there are still many, many people who have, and much to their relief the long dry spell seems to be abating somewhat. There have been some pop-up concerts, solo singers positioned on fire escapes, and in-home music making should one be fortunate enough to own and play an instrument. Streams of archived operas, archived concerts, an occasional live (on the Internet or television) performance ...these are all wonderful. However, live music played by live people right in front of one's own eyes and ears has been rare.

Flying somewhat under the radar, the Morris Museum in Morristown NJ has been producing brief, small ensemble concerts for several weeks. The groups are mostly comprised of string players. With all the precautions in place, these concerts couldn't be safer to attend. A digital version of the program was sent to ticketholders in advance of the concert, which obviated the need for a paper one. One less thing to touch.

Saturday evening, October 10th, was one such concert. One of the world's premier musical organizations, the conductor-free Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (in string quartet formation with Abigail Fayette, violin; Laura Frautschi, violin; Dov Scheindlin viola; and Jonathan Spitz, cello) performed under the stars after a near-perfect sunset. The Museum has marked off 8X8 foot squares on the top deck of their parking garage. The masked audience members set up their own chairs and enjoy their picnics. Seating complies with social distancing protocols. As strange as this sounds, it worked.

In this, the second of three concerts, Orpheus presented Jessie Montgomery's Strum, Florence B. Price's Drink to Me With Thine Own Eyes from Five Songs in Counterpoint and Johannes Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in b minor Op.115. To the audience' disappointment, due to rush hour's return to the New York metro area, Ms. Montgomery was unable to be present.

In Ms. Montgomery's words: "Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati (a repeating pattern) that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration." The complexity of this five minute piece kept the musicians busy, varying between strumming, plucking, and bowing their instruments. All seems to be in tumult, but the well-planned structure beneath it tames the chaos. It was certainly an exciting way to begin the concert. Ms. Montgomery, born in 1981, is a multi-faceted musician with many interests that all influence her music, including African and Latin musical idioms. She is building a fascinating musical career. It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

Why don't most classical music audiences know of Florence B. Price (1887-1953)? For a composer whose compositional output is large and varied, hers should be a household name. In her day, it was. She was the first African-American female composer to have a composition, her First Symphony (of four) performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her star dimmed after her passing and much of her music was thought to be lost. The recent discovery of a significant cache of her work, however, is bringing her back into the public eye, which is right where she belongs.

Her lovely Drink to Me With Thine Own Eyes from Five Songs in Counterpoint is an excellent example of her compositional style. The quartet gave this four minute piece an elegant and elegiac reading of the familiar melody. Underlying this melody, which was batted gently around to each musician, (all playing with enormous tenderness and care), were rich harmonies and unexpected chord changes.

The centerpiece of the hour-long concert, which began at 6pm, was Johannes Brahms' (1833-1897) Clarinet Quintet in b minor Op.115 . This thirty-five minute piece was written for a clarinetist Brahms greatly admired, as one hears in the exquisitely wistful solo he composed for him. Orpheus member Alan Kay performed with grace and expression, demonstrating the full range of the instrument's tonal ability. Brahms is often thought of as an "autumnal" composer, with many of his works creating the nostalgic atmosphere of that fleeting season. This quintet is certainly one of those pieces. It doesn't end with a bang or a whimper, but simply fades away, like the leaves coming off the trees. It was magical.

This concert was sorely needed and much appreciated by the audience . Peace, at least for a little while, wrapped itself around performers and listeners alike.

Orpheus will conclude its residency at the Morris Museum's parking garage top deck on Saturday evening, October 24 at 6pm. Works on the program will be Ludwig van Beethoven's Septet Op.20 and Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegal's Merry Pranks. For tickets and more information, please call the Morris Museum at 973-971-3706 or visit their website, morrismuseum.org/lots-of-strings



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From This Author Joanna Barouch