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A Rebellious Orchestra Meets an Inspired Match

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

A story is told about a prominent anarchist: Although he opposed laws of all kinds, his kids jumping on the bed drove him crazy, and he became, at home, a tyrant.

Orpheus, that peculiar chamber orchestra of 36 players with no conductor--which is filling in this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Los Angeles Philharmonic on tour in Spain--brings to mind such anarchism. These are musicians who have rebelled, and rebelled successfully, against government. Each takes responsibility for the ensemble. But instead of sounding free, they sound even more tightly controlled than if they were governed by a conductor.

That, of course, is their glory. These are virtuosic players always on the alert. Their ensemble playing is invariably superb; they are of like mind in dynamics and attacks. Yet democracy can sometimes mean that the loudest mouths get their way, which also seems to be the Orpheus way. A fascinating new video documentary, “Orpheus in the Real World,” shows rehearsals as free-for-alls. These are pushy players, and every phrase does, in performance, seem to be played for maximum impact.

In my experience, Orpheus is best when it plays music that matches its own temperament or when it plays with an inspired soloist, who becomes collaborator and, almost, de facto conductor. Happily both of those conditions were met in the one important work on the program Thursday, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, with Richard Goode as soloist.

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Goode is just about everything Orpheus is not, and vice versa. The pianist hardly ever appears to be in the real world at all but rather seems to be a musician transported, with head in the clouds. In a long slow movement by, say, Schubert, he can be so wonderfully absorbed in the music that a listener gets the impression that Goode himself doesn’t know exactly what he will do next. This is precisely opposite to Orpheus’ approach of hammering out every phrase through argument, persuasion and power plays.

Still, both approaches are self-absorbed ways of going about music, and in the case of the Mozart concertos, which Orpheus and Goode have begun recording for Nonesuch, the combination appears inspired. The recent first release of Nos. 18 and 20 is vital and convincing every moment. So, too, was Thursday’s performance of No. 25, K. 503.

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The 25th concerto is a big cocky work, in C major, full of great celebratory gestures in the orchestra and inspired melodies in the piano. Orpheus is born to the outgoing spirit of the score; Goode to spinning out melodies with a sweetness and lyricism that seems almost to defy the keyboard. The result is magic.

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But the specialness of this Mozart performance also served to make an otherwise slight program of works by Faure (“Masques et Bergamasques”), Sibelius (“Valse Triste”) and Bartok (Divertimento for string orchestra) seem almost an insult. These are crowd pleasers, and Orpheus used them to show off just how delicately it could play here, how rhapsodically it could fiddle there.

This is an ensemble that really can impress in big works, especially American music that is as forthright as the players. It is an ensemble that has made splendid recordings of Ives and Copland, and that music is what it owes a big-city subscription audience (especially when the Los Angeles Philharmonic is filling out the rest of the month with lightweight programs). But those kinds of recordings don’t sell well, and this program seemed very much about aggressive marketing, which goes along all too readily with aggressive playing.

(If you’re curious about that documentary, by the way, pester KCET. It was made for PBS and broadcast nationally just a couple of weeks ago, but our local presenter chose not to, despite Orpheus’ three programs here.)

* Orpheus, with Richard Goode, performs the same program tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $8-$60. (213) 850-2000.


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