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Music by Consensus

Ken Smith is a freelance writer based in New York

It’s Thursday afternoon and Richard Goode is seated at the piano in front of about 20 members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His hands move in an arc as he sings through the line they have just finished rehearsing from Mozart’s C-major Piano Concerto, K. 503, suggesting a different tack. He holds back the flow almost imperceptibly, but when the full orchestra plays, the contrast is striking. Several Orpheans express their approval immediately.

“Richard never comes in with an interpretation in mind,” says cellist Melissa Meell. “He’s always searching for new meaning. You can see the kind of detailed work we do, but tomorrow we could come in and play just the opposite.”

“I like to keep people on edge,” Goode says later, half-smiling. “This was the first Mozart concerto I ever played, but I still find myself in a state of continual flux. Sometimes you feel brisker, or more gentle, or more anxious than others, so you have to be as clear as possible in your own mind. That’s the discipline of working with Orpheus; you don’t have a conductor to focus these things, so everybody has to have that clarity of mind together.”

Goode and Orpheus--established 25 years ago as a collective, the first modern orchestra without a conductor--will perform the C-major Concerto Thursday, Saturday and next Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The concert comes on the heels of their recent Nonesuch recording of Mozart’s concertos in B-flat major (K. 456) and D minor (K. 466), with more planned for the future.

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The orchestra and Goode go back a long way in Orpheus’ 25-year history. “Richard came with us on one of our first tours, traveling with us on the bus every day, which is very unusual for a soloist,” says artistic coordinator Ronnie Bauch. “It was the perfect situation for him, though, because there was no separation between living with the music and living with the people making the music. That’s part of what Orpheus is about, and Richard took to it immediately.”

The Mozart concerto collaborations are significant for Goode as well, marking his first extended exploration of a composer’s concerto repertory on recordings.

A relatively late bloomer as a soloist (he made his Carnegie Hall recital debut in 1990 at the age of 47), Goode was born in the Bronx in 1943, where his childhood piano lessons progressed rapidly. At age 10, he began studying with Claude Frank and, later, Rudolf Serkin at Curtis; his teenage years were spent at Serkin’s Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. Goode first became known as “a pianist’s pianist” as a founding member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1969. Although he frequently gave recitals and played with orchestras, his solo work remained secondary to chamber music. But when Goode began to take stock of his life in the late 1970s, he decided that chamber music had been “the path of least resistance.”

In order to reach deeper into himself as an artist, he made a painful decision to leave the Chamber Music Society.

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“One of the reasons I withdrew was to figure out my own ideas better, to clarify certain things to myself,” Goode says. “That’s hard to do when you’re playing with other people. You can find harmony in chamber music by intensifying the differences, making them as clear as possible, but too often, it’s done by splitting the difference, which is not all that helpful.”

The Avery Fisher Prize, which he won in 1980, included a concerto appearance with the New York Philharmonic and provided a welcome boost. But Goode’s real breakthrough as a soloist came in 1983, when he set out to become the first American pianist to record the complete Beethoven sonatas. He performed the entire cycle midway through the 10-year recording project in the 1987-88 season in New York.

Reviewing the 10-disc set for the New York Times in 1993, Michael Kimmelman wrote, “Mr. Goode’s playing is remarkable for its organic naturalness and its combination of freshness and maturity. The former comes out of the latter.” The performances created such a stir that discussions of Goode’s career generally break down into “before Beethoven” and “after Beethoven.”

“I’m not really sure if it was just the greater name recognition afterward or if something actually changed in me musically,” Goode says. “But I do know that the actual performance of the cycle, the preoccupation with the music, did something to focus my own energies as an artist.”

As he now enters into concerto recordings with Mozart, Goode finds a similar sense of classical proportion, though one that requires a thoroughly different approach.

“Mozart is so balanced, so supremely in command of his resources, so perfect aesthetically regardless of its mood, that it’s almost off-putting,” he says. “It’s not that Beethoven isn’t balanced, but for him, the effort is apparent. You can play Beethoven and be strenuous, in fact, you have to be strenuous, but any strain in Mozart, any show of muscularity or physical effort, is not desirable. You can achieve a tremendous inner balance studying the piano concertos, I think, because the music has that.”

Playing with Orpheus has also been a welcome return to working directly with other musicians, he says. His belated studying of the solo repertoire leaves little time for chamber music these days, apart from playing with his wife, violinist Marcia Weinfeld, and occasional duo recitals with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

The scope of the Mozart project, though, is somewhat ambiguous. Orpheus general manager Norma Hurlburt clearly expresses her goal to record all 27 of them; orchestra members admit to planning 10, perhaps 12. A spokesman for Nonesuch says the current plans are to record 10. At this point, Goode has resolved not to record a complete cycle, his Beethoven notwithstanding.

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“I still have an aversion to the completeness syndrome,” Goode says. “The CD era gives a certain value to it, but I still believe in the natural superiority of certain pieces over others. Some distinction has to be made between the works that are on a higher level and those that aren’t. Performers naturally identify with some pieces and not others. I don’t know today if I would choose to do the complete Beethoven.”

Given his constant reassessments, the fact that Goode also expresses ambivalence toward the act of recording is not surprising.

“Certainly without recordings, musical life would be much poorer,” he admits, “but I do have reservations. One hears the flaws in one’s own playing, which is bothersome. Tiny things matter in recordings in ways they don’t in [live] performance. [My producer] Max Wilcox compares these to misprints in a book: you just take them them out. But I think it’s one of the reasons so many recordings are so dull. If you try to get all the little things in place, you lose sight of whatever attracted you to the piece in the first place.”

As to his own performances, he listens to everything as part of the recording process, but once a CD comes out, he avoids it. “Afterward, I hear it only by mistake, and then unpleasantly,” he says. “I really should cure myself of this.”

He does have hope. “One time I was doing a music event at a Tower Records store and they were playing my Brahms recording. I couldn’t flee--it wouldn’t have been right under the circumstances--so I had to stay there. And you know, I kind of liked it. I was surprised.”

*

* Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. Thursday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 2:30 p.m. $8-$60. (213) 365-3500.


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