Bach and Beyond: Orpheus Plays Carnegie Hall

fromWNYC

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Bach Talk

At intermission, composer Christopher Theofanidis spoke with WNYC host John Schaefer about the world premiere of his new piece, "Muse," Theofanidis’ contribution to the project called “The New Brandenburgs,” spearheaded by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

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Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra i i

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's "New Brandenburgs" project will spawn six new companion pieces to Bach's popular Branden Burg Concertos. Ken Nahoum hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Nahoum
Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's "New Brandenburgs" project will spawn six new companion pieces to Bach's popular Branden Burg Concertos.

Ken Nahoum

Some pieces of classical music lead lives beyond their status as overplayed—yet revered—warhorses. A few years back, a newly composed collection of Bach's Goldberg Variations debuted at the Gilmore Piano Festival. Now, Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos have inspired a new set of companion pieces.

"The New Brandenburgs," is a four-year project, launched by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which will spawn six new pieces of music. Orpheus has commissioned six composers to each take one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and write a new piece based closely on the master's.

The project recently passed phase two with the concert presented here, as Orpheus gave the first performance of Muse, a new piece by American composer, Christopher Theofanidis based on Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Last year the orchestra debuted A Brandenburg Autumn by Stephen Hartke, based on the first of Bach's concertos.

Composers still to come include Paul Moravec, Melinda Wagner, Aaron J. Kernis and the venerable Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The final 'New Brandenburg' is slated for its premiere during the 2010-11 season, when Orpheus plans to play all six new works in tandem with all six of the original Brandenburg Concertos.

The composers are not required to make their new pieces sound like Bach's, but they do need to stick closely to the original instrumentation. Bach scored his third Brandenburg for groups of divided strings and harpsichord. For Theofanidis, composing for the harpsichord was something completely new.

"It terrified the daylights out of me, but I had a great time doing it," Theofanidis says. "It's such a wonderful, metallic instrument and I think of it now as the electric guitar of the baroque."

As far as explaining the title, Muse, Theofanidis says it's pretty simple.

"Although each composer approaches these Brandenburg Concertos in their own way and with their own voice, the central muse for all of us is Bach. And in so many ways, we all take our own nourishment from that original source, so it seemed like a fitting title."

Like Bach's original, Muse is in three movements, with the brief, middle one flitting by like a leaf on the wind. Theofanidis conjures Bach's sense of harmony and percolating energy to make his modern day musical points.

New York Times critic Bernard Holland likened the music to "swimming, with the ear smoothly penetrating textures that are thick but at the same time transparent."

In this concert, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and hosted by WNYC's John Schaefer, Orpheus began with a performance of the original Brandenburg No. 3, followed by Theofanidis' new-fangled Bach.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Sound of Democracy

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is acclaimed for its music-making, but also as a business model. Throughout the group's 35-year history there has never been a conductor.

Before each concert, Orpheus members elect principal players. This core becomes a management team for the concert. They decide on the style and approach for the music. But at rehearsal, everybody has input, and part of the job is to both talk, and listen.

The players also fund-raise, plan educational programs, and make hiring decisions. It all works so well that Orpheus has become a management consulting group. The ensemble presents workshops for corporations around the world on what they call "the Orpheus Process," with corporate managers watching the group's entire rehearsal procedures.

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