Songs of Fire and Ice: OCO and Tetzlaff Dance with the Gypsies


Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
with Christian Tetzlaff, violin
March 26, 2014
Bailey Hall, Cornell University

When the first stirrings of the Hungarian Rondo resounded from the bows of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, time and space collapsed. Zoltán Kodály’s transcription and embellishment of Magyar (old Hungarian) soldier’s songs began an intimate night of music making at Cornell University’s Bailey Hall, where light struck prism in a program of gypsy refractions. Impressive though this rarely heard music was, so too was the musicianship fronting it. The OCO worked by turns smoothly and jaggedly, bringing warmth and coolth where needed. Through it all, a pastoral clarinet crept in and out of frame, troubling the waters here and breaking surface there. However far the scales tipped, a central theme brought assurance with its periodic balance.

Such dynamic brazenness carried over into Béla Bartók’s 1939 Divertimento for string orchestra. Among the composer’s most beloved works, it was given a robust interpretation. Between the insistence of its underlying pulse and the violins spiraling above and beyond it, artful contrasts ensued. As throughout the Kodály, a core of soloists emerged and receded, morphing between concert hall elegance and fireside rusticity. Remarkable about the performance was its clarity of voices, each cutting a strong thematic figure. As the orchestra moved from pen & ink to the charcoal of the second movement, one could feel a cinematic charge arising from the dust, so that by the gilded final Allegro the light was that much clearer for having passed through darkness.

Christian Tetzlaff

Following intermission, violinist Christian Tetzlaff took to the stage to unravel the Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor of Joseph Joachim. Composed between 1854 and 1860, it remains one of the most notorious pieces in the repertoire. Tetzlaff was more than prepared to overcome its maze of double stops and chromatic fingerwork, the latter of which enacted a dance in and of itself not unlike the folk tunes that had inspired it. Aside from being a technical tempest, the composing drew on a range of influences, from the Beethovenian drama of its introduction to the Paganini-like finish. Yet the closest analogue was undoubtedly Dvořák, whose own violin concerto was duly inspired by Joachim’s ways with bow and pen. The OCO accordingly showed a retroactive side, one more subdued, that it might allow Tetzlaff to express himself without obstruction. The violinist’s interpretive prowess soared, especially in a cadenza that was, as the kids say, off the chain. The bird-like slow movement at concerto center presaged more of Dvořák’s later work, although the spirit of the dance was never far away, as if we were catching snatches of some revelry just beyond the pastures. And revelry we got in the joyful finale, which put Tetzlaff in the unenviable position of tying a plethora of loose ends—a feat he accomplished with tact.

Following suit of the orchestra half-circled around him, Tetzlaff emoted effortlessly and with controlled passion, so that even the encore (Hungarian Dance No. 19 by Brahms) went down like a delicate confection at the end of a five-star meal.

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