Igor Stravinsky spent his final years in New York, living at the Essex House on Central Park South. A year after he died, and just a few blocks away, a group of energetic young musicians began presenting conductorless chamber orchestra concerts at Alice Tully Hall.
Although the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was a new experiment, the individual members were already seasoned performers of modern repertoire; some had worked with Stravinsky directly, and others participated in recordings made by Stravinsky's chief torchbearer, conductor Robert Craft. From early on, Orpheus made a point of stretching beyond its most natural core repertoire: Mozart and Haydn: to include recent compositions, including some of Stravinsky's relatively obscure works for small orchestra.
Throughout the 1970's, Orpheus identified and perfected its Stravinsky staples. The Pulcinella Suite, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto and Eight Instrumental Miniatures became signature pieces, and appeared on one of Orpheus' first recordings, initially made for the Pro Arte label and then re-released by Deutsche Grammophon at the start of its exclusive recording contract with Orpheus. The group performed around the world throughout the 1980's, and it was rare that a tour did not include at least one Stravinsky calling card.
As the group expanded its size and scope, it was able to incorporate more of Stravinsky's catalog. Besides the aforementioned works, as well as the string orchestra gems Apollon musagte and the Concerto in D, larger works entered the performance rotation. One of the remarkable practices of Orpheus (contrary to the usual business model) is that they performed a work as much as possible before recording it, not waiting until after to boost record sales.
The studio recordings incorporated the collective wisdom of dozens of musicians amassed over numerous performances, and the resulting music was miraculous. Orpheus' second all-Stravinsky album, recorded in the early 1990's, featured the ballet score Orpheus (a minor work in the group's history, despite its name) and the ballet-infused concert piece Danses concertantes. The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs published this ecstatic review of the Deutsche Grammophon disc in its 1999 edition:
One continues to marvel at the sophistication and the seeming spontaneity of the playing from this unique conductorless chamber orchestra. The refined coloring and feeling for atmosphere at the opening of Orpheus and the sharp rhythmic bite of the later Pas d'action is matched by the wit of the Pas de deux of the Danses concertantes and the delicacy distilled in the Thme vari_, with the closing sections of both works particularly satisfying. These performances are unsurpassed, and the recording is of DG's finest, very much in the demonstration bracket for ambient warmth, clear detail and natural balance.
Besides bigger works such as Danses concertantes, which has remained an essential fixture in Orpheus' programming rotation, the group also reached into smaller and quirkier corners of Stravinsky's output. Prompted by Deutsche Grammophon's quest to record every piece the composer wrote, Orpheus produced its third full disc of Stravinsky, ranging in scope from a 42-second bassoon duet to a sax- and brass-laden symphonic Scherzo. That collection of miniatures, Shadow Dances, won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance.
The affinity between Orpheus and Stravinsky stems from the very fabric of each: Orpheus is a collection of bold individuals, and Stravinsky's music for small ensemble is boldly individuated. It is a natural match, one that has been perfected through Orpheus' countless hours of nitpicking rehearsals, energizing performances and transcendent recordings.
When Orpheus celebrates Stravinsky throughout this season, it draws upon traditions and memories spanning four decades, and a relationship between composer and performer that is truly timeless.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra launches its Carnegie Hall season Oct. 8 with a concert featuring Aaron Jay Kernis' Brandenburg Concerto-inspired work, Concerto with Echoes. The program also features Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks, Bach's Musical Offering "Ricercare" (arr. Anton Webern), and Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 with acclaimed violinist Henning Kraggerud.
Full season details have been released. Visit Orpheus for more info.
Composer and writer Aaron Grad has been the Program Annotator for Orpheus since 2005. He gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Ronnie Bauch, Senior Advisor and Managing Director Emeritus, in the preparation of this article.