Talking Heads: Dov Scheindlin, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

dov-scheindlin

Interview with Ben Hogwood

It’s another hot, sunny morning in New York, and Arcana is talking with violist Dov Scheindlin, a member and former director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion Deutsche Grammophon have just issued all the ensemble’s recording for the label on a 55-CD box set. Dov has graciously given part of his early morning to talk about his time with the orchestra and some of their philosophies. We begin – naturally – by asking how the relationship started.

“I’d been a fan of Orpheus for a long time, and was a fan long before I was lucky enough to start playing with the orchestra. In 1988 I entered the Juilliard School. As a present I got my very first CD player, and I got a CD with it! It was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing Dvořák Serenades. I listened to that CD, over and over, and it remains one of my favourites. That was the first time I really got to know Orpheus. Then I got to see them in Carnegie Hall a few years later, and the live experience was totally transforming. I was really lucky because I was living in London for six years, and when I came back from there in 2004 I was lucky enough to begin playing with the orchestra. I knew some people in common, and they were generous enough to let me come in and sub, and gradually it became a permanent thing.”

He has vivid memories of his first concert with the orchestra. “Oh gosh, yeah – we did something fiendishly difficult, which was the John Adams Chamber Symphony. Without a conductor it’s extremely complicated, with 15 moving parts, and I think they threw me in the deep end! I played principal viola, which was amazing to me because I was playing with them for the very first time. I think the idea behind Orpheus of shared responsibility, and seeking leadership, it meant they were good about allowing people to step into big roles right away. One of the things they wanted to find out was how you would do in that situation. It was a great experience. We took it on tour to a number of places and then we played it in Carnegie Hall. It was great fun. I don’t remember what else was on the programme but the Chamber Symphony sticks out in my mind, an amazing experience.”

The Adams, presented in that concert as a ‘one part per player’ version of the Chamber Symphony for the first time, is typical of the orchestra’s adventurous approach. Scheindlin agrees. “One of the things about the small orchestra is that we love our repertoire, but it is a bit more constrained – we don’t play Rachmaninov symphonies or anything like that. We’re always looking for things to play, and we actively commissioned new pieces for a formation of our size. One of the things we also do is to look to the existing repertoire to see what could be done, convincingly, musically and tastefully for an orchestra of our size. That broadens the repertoire, and the Adams was an example of that. There are more examples coming up in our next season, and we think of ourselves as trying to broaden the mission of the chamber orchestra.”

Scheindlin had a great deal of experience of membership with string quartets, which stood him in good stead for joining the orchestra. “Absolutely. That was one of the things that made it a really good fit. Orpheus is not ‘leader-less’, it’s ‘leader-full’. I think they’re looking for everyone to contribute. Occasionally a great player comes in, but doesn’t have anything to say, or is just looking to follow the leader, and that doesn’t work out as well. We’re really looking for people who can contribute ideas, bring ideas to the table, and we bring them all together and make them larger than the sum of the parts. Playing in a quartet, and having that experience of being responsible for 25% at least of the interpretation, has been great training for being in Orpheus. It’s about knowing when to contribute, when to sit back. It’s one of those subtle dances, because everyone has hundreds of opinions about everything. You need to pick the right moment to make your mark, and not overplay your hand. I think that people with a chamber music background do very well at Orpheus for that reason.”

Scheindlin finds the viola section a particularly stimulating place to be, right in the middle of the musical action. “It’s one of the things I love about playing the viola. Aside from the warm sound, and the timbre of the instrument, it is the position in the middle of the ensemble. It really makes you sensitive to everything that’s going on in the music. You’re not like likely to get lost at one end or the other. That’s another thing that’s been great for Orpheus, is that everyone knows the score very thoroughly. As the violist you’re right in the middle of the score, and what you’re playing often doesn’t make sense without having the whole context, so you’re constantly aware of all the other parts. You’re not just playing your part, you’re playing the whole piece – it’s just that you’re only sounding your own part. As a violist I love that.

As well as the DG box set, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has accompanied Brad Mehldau on a recent Nonesuch release, Variations. The recording was made some time ago, but has fond memories for Dov. “That was really fun. We did a whole tour of Europe, and he was such a low key personality, we were all kind of in awe of him. He would just sit down and focused, and when we played we felt like it was brand new every time even though it was a classically written out sort of piece. Although there I remember there were there there’s a cadenza in there I think where he did something totally different at the time and we were just sort of sat there in amazement. But yeah, that was a great experience with Brad Mehldau. I think we did that tour about 10 years ago, so I’m so happy to see that recording has seen the light of day.

Fast forward to performing in the light of a pandemic, and we start to talk about the experience of playing live while wearing masks, as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra did recently in their concert of Haydn’s Seven Last Words. Scheindlin admits that performances can be compromised. “It’s a somewhat disembodied experience. I’m so glad for the existence of the masks, and they make it possible for us to play together, those and now the vaccines, of course. I’m not against them, but they are definitely an impediment to direct communication. That said, you get over it and we do a lot of eye contact. I got used to looking for people’s eyes, though you do feel like you’re missing part of the picture also sometimes. If the mask isn’t positioned properly it can affect your own perception of your sound, but you get used to it. Certainly we’d much rather play with masks than not play with them.”

It was clearly a thrill to return to the live environment. “Absolutely. We hadn’t played together in about six months, and finally in September we did our first live, chamber music concert. It was Egmont. My very first concert was a chamber music concert in the courtyard of a church. They had drawn circles in chalk on the lawn, and everyone was able to bring their own lawn chair to sit in there, maybe 50 people in all. It was a beautiful late afternoon, and we started with the Sextet from Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. It is such a beautiful, nostalgic and reflective piece, and something about it was just a transcending moment. I just felt so grateful and realised I would never take the experience of playing a live performance for granted again. The pandemic has obviously not been a net plus for humanity, but if there’s one thing I take out of it it’s rededicating myself to the power of what we do.”

Scheindlin speaks candidly about his own experience of lockdown. “It was a challenge,” he says frankly. “I have two young children, aged nine and six. When the pandemic came their schools closed down and we were suddenly teachers and chefs and all kinds of things that we’ve never been before. That took a tremendous amount of our energy, particularly the first six months up until September when school reopened, which freed up a little more time. It was a tough period, but it was great to spend more time with the family. I’m used to playing so many concerts at night, and my wife is a violinist as well, so also plays a lot at night. Three or four nights a week we wouldn’t be putting the kids to bed, but now suddenly we’re putting them to bed all the time! That part was nice, but having to stand over their shoulder while they did remote learning wasn’t that great, I’ll confess. It took up a lot of our energy. I made it an iron law to practice an hour a day. That was about the most I could consistently muster. I had to have that hour as a moment of sanity, a moment of focus and purpose when we didn’t know when we would get back to playing. I practised Bach Suites every day.”

He vividly recounts the start of lockdown. “I remember three or four days into it I got very shaken. They were starting to cancel things – the next few weeks, the next month – and then it became “Oh sorry, we’ll see you in the fall”, and I was wondering when is it ever going to change? Fortunately, with distancing, masks and amazing vaccines which I think I certainly didn’t expect to work so quickly, we’ve been able to get back together. It’s miraculous.”

With those revelations came an awareness of the orchestra’s importance in the community. “When we started performing again, the audiences were so grateful. Everyone was grateful, it was almost like a religious experience. One of the great things we did when we couldn’t be together in person was play a series of concerts, which we called reflections, on Zoom for audiences in elder care homes, and for people with severe medical issues and dementia. It was a great way to stay in touch with our audiences, to see the joy on their faces when they were able to hear music, even if they weren’t physically there. We did those fairly regularly, one person, or I would play with my wife. That was a great experience during the shutdown. We strive to serve and represent our community, and we’ve missed everyone, and we’re trying to reconnect right now and looking forward to next year when we can go back to performing in the places that we usually do.” A chance to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary, too? “Yes – and a personal recovery from when I turned 50 too!”

In celebration of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s 50 years, Deutsche Grammophon have released a box set of all the ensemble’s recordings on the label. From experience, when you think you’ve heard every recording another one pops up that DG sneaked out in the 1990s, especially. “There is such a repository of amazing repertoire”, says Dov. “I’ve been digging into it myself.” We talk about shared favourites, such as the disc of Respighi pieces including Trittico Botticelliano. “That’s a great, lesser-known bit of repertoire that’s just beautiful music and which hasn’t seen the light of day. I’m not actually on it because it was before my time but I love that recording and am proud we brought that repertoire back.”

Asked for a personal favourite, Dov is quick in his response. “We recently did a Mendelssohn CD with Jan Lisiecki playing both Mendelssohn piano concertos. I know the first one but had never heard the second, and they are charming pieces. He does an amazing job. We also did the Italian Symphony, which is on the box, and that’s a piece we come back to again and again. The first chord makes me think of Orpheus straight away, and it’s great that we have it on CD now. There are so many that are really wonderful – the Ives recordings, the Stravinsky. There is such a rich bunch of stuff, and I hope we get to continue making them and finding new repertoire to bring forward.”

The orchestra is famous for working without a conductor, and I ask Scheindlin what the secret behind their success might be. Is it because they are a team of leaders? “I think so. There is a certain verve that comes from everyone interpreting a piece in real time without an intermediary. We’re all directly connected to the score and to each other, and we don’t need to follow a human metronome. There are great and inspiring conductors, and when you get to a certain scale you need one, but I think what makes our music making so fresh and live is that we’re all leading all the time and playing our hearts out.”

The forthcoming season is packed with exciting concerts. “We’re really excited about our tour with Branford Marsalis,” he says. It was supposed to happen this past year but we’re really thrilled it could be rescheduled. We’re doing our sort of first concert of Cuban-style music, with Arturo Sandoval, which should be really great, and we also have a tour coming up in in Japan with Nobuyuki Tsujii who we’ve also recorded with. We’ll be taking the Chopin concertos to Japan, assuming that we can still get around the world by then. We’re so happy to be coming Carnegie Hall, which we haven’t been in for a year and a half now. January will hopefully be a triumphant return! We’re optimistic for the season.”

There is clearly a thirst in New York for the return of live music. “Everything was so quiet for a year, and suddenly I’m getting calls all the time to play something next week! Suddenly people are deciding it’s possible and feasible to have live music again. I know there are these variants out there, and obviously we’re watching that, but so far the situation in New York is good and coming to life.”

With the orchestra committed to new music, have they received extra numbers of commissions? “It’s been tough for composers, because it would never have occurred to great composers of the classical time to write anything without an idea of when it would be performed. We’re actively bringing in new pieces next year, and we are continuing commissioning and we’re planning to commission for our 50th season in 2022 to 2023. That’s part of our mission, and we’re looking forward to getting back to that.”

For more information on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, head to their website. To hear clips from the Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, head to the label website, where you can also purchase the set, on 55CDs or as a download.

On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website

On record – Yuja Wang, LAPO / Gustavo Dudamel: John Adams – Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (DG)

Yuja Wang (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel

John Adams
Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (2019)
China Gates (1977)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838289 [32’05”]

Recorded November 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is John Adams’ first major work for piano and orchestra since 1997. Its world premiere took place in 2019, with dedicatee Yuja Wang taking the solo part in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The same team are on the money here with the first recording of the substantial new piece – with a contrasting makeweight, as Wang offers one of Adams’ much loved shorter works, the solo piano composition China Gates.

What’s the music like?

In a word, dynamic. The composer’s direction for the first of the three movements of Must the Devil…says a lot – Gritty, Funky, But in strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-Like. It describes the music perfectly, for as Yuja Wang drives the music forward with big, block chords there is a great deal of positive mechanical energy – and indeed a bit of funk. The ‘good tunes’ are not quite so obvious, with the through-composed nature of the piece masking any obvious hooks, but there is a strong and assertive drive forward, like the relentless surge of traffic along a Californian freeway.

The frenetic activity subsides towards the end of the first movement and we get a closer look at Adams’ soul, glimpsed through luminous string textures and sensitive, nocturnal piano writing. The mechanical grind is temporarily forgotten and a tender, thoughtful mood evolves. This leads to the Gently, Relaxed direction, which effectively becomes the concerto’s slow movement, with music of serenity and beautiful colours. As the movement progresses the lines become a little more angular, the strings and piano working together while complemented by softly spoken wind and brass choirs.

Then the energy returns, and we move into the finale with clumps of percussive chords from Wang, leading the orchestra in a section marked Obsession / Swing. The cross rhythms sway, generating exciting momentum between piano and orchestra, and Wang throws her all at the piano as it issues massive, repetitive statements, the obsession growing ever greater towards the end and the sound of a bell, with which Adams brings an end to the three rounds.

China Gates is a much-needed repose, its meditative thoughts given in an unbroken, fluid stream.

Does it all work?

Yes, and is hard to fault in this performance. The musical language is familiar – recognisably John Adams in its long lines of busy activity – and it could be argued some of these statements are familiar too, closely related to previous large-scale utterances. But the performance is ideal, a white knuckle ride in the faster sections and a cool reverie in the memorable slower parts. China Gates is the ideal foil.

Yuja Wang is brilliant throughout, a whirlwind of energy in the fast music of Must the Devil…and a model of sensitivity in the quieter music.

Is it recommended?

Fans of Adams’ music will not hesitate – and nor should newcomers either, for not only is the music very listenable it is presented in terrific recorded sound. A DG release with all the fireworks for sure, and if there are no recognisably good tunes to hum afterwards there is plenty to enjoy. John Adams’ positive energy wins through once again.

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Deutsche Grammophon website

On record – Adès Conducts Adès: Piano Concerto & Totentanz (Deutsche Grammophon)

Kirill Gerstein (piano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo), Mark Stone (baritone), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès

Thomas Adès
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)
Totentanz (2013)

Deutsche Grammophon 4837998 [55’58”]

Producer Nick Squire
Engineer Joel Watts

Live performances, recorded November 2016 (Totentanz) & March 2019 (Piano Concerto) at Symphony Hall, Boston

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Thomas Adès has latterly been enjoying a productive association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They appear here in two recent and pointedly contrasted pieces which, between them, make for a viable overview of a compositional ethos as absorbing as it is frustrating.

What’s the music like?

From the outset Adès evidently had in mind a ‘proper’ piano concerto, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is precisely that: three movements, of virtually equal length, unfolding along archetypal designs – sonata, ternary and rondo forms – even if their angle of approach is not what it might have been. The first movement abounds in jazzy inferences, albeit with a more relaxed ‘second subject’ to provide a modicum of contrast, while the central Andante is overlaid with intriguing symmetries that offset what might otherwise seem unremarkable material. The final Allegro duly renews the animated dialogue between soloist and orchestra in what could be termed an equable meeting between Gershwin and Ligeti, with Prokofiev putting-in an unexpected appearance toward the decisive and effervescent close. This is not the radical departure from Adès’s previous concertante pieces as might be supposed, though neither is this merely a triumph of concept over content. Whether it manages to revitalize a genre which has had precious few additions during the past half-century remains to be seen.

Certainly, the Concerto makes a telling foil to Totentanz. This is a setting of an anonymous 15th-century commentary to a frieze (destroyed in wartime) where Death visits a succession of those representing the medieval social strata and their responses thereof. Despite utilising male and female voices, it is not a song-cycle so much as a dramatic scena in which loss is considered in the context of a ‘dance of death’ that motivates the greater discourse. Each of those visited is allotted a specific musical expression, though the initial call-and-response is gradually blurred as vocal parts are overlaid in an intensifying activity towards the seismic orchestral culmination.

Characterisation of the remaining protagonists risk losing focus, yet there could be no mistaking the plaintive sensuousness of the encounter with the Maiden or the disarming naïveté of that with the Child as the music wends a weary Mahlerian way to its close. Each encounter is interpretable from different and even competing perspectives which extend the range of expression, while making it ambivalent to the point of disingenuousness.

Does it all work?

Yes, given that both performances meet the challenges of each work head on. Kirill Gerstein sounds unfazed in this world premiere of the Concerto, aligning himself to the orchestra with well-nigh perfect synchronization. The composer secures a truly virtuosic response from the Boston Symphony here and in Totentanz, during which Christianne Stotijn brings a decidedly fraught pathos while Mark Stone responds with burnished intensity. Adès has been lucky in the exponents of his music throughout his career and both these occasions were no exception.

Is it recommended?

It is – not least because these works, markedly different in themselves, suggest a continued desire to bring the flippant and the earnest into unlikely though productive accord. Whether they constitute a surrender to, or a critique of, the zeitgeist remains part of their fascination.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Víkingur Ólafsson – studying Philip Glass

Víkingur Ólafsson (photo: Ari Magg)

Last year, Arcana defined Víkingur Ólafsson as a true classical music entrepreneur. We explored his introductions to classical music, and talked about the two festivals he helps administer – Sweden’s Vinterfest and the Reykjavik Midsummer Festival. We also covered his friendship with composer Philip Glass, 80 this year. Olafsson professed his admiration for the composer and his creative energy, an admiration he has now transferred to disc in the form of his first recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Time, then, for chapter two in the interview!

When did you first encounter Philip Glass’s music?

It’s quite a specific memory. I was 13 years old, sitting with my two sisters in the back seat of our car on a family vacation. Dad was driving on the highway, heading from France to Switzerland and as we were bored and quarrelling in the back seat, he handed us this recording of Philip Glass Violin Concerto No.1 with Gidon Kremer (on DG as it happens) which we listened to on our Sony Discman players. It was unbelievable to discover this new sound world while passing by the French landscapes on 150 KM per hour.

Some of the Etudes on this album feel like extended meditations. Do you get into a kind of trance when you play them?

Not really, I’d rather have my audience in a trance… I just try to listen intensely and explore the possibilities of the instrument and acoustics, looking for the right proportions of sound and time.

Do you think the Etudes are actually much more emotional than the titles suggest they should be?

What is emotional for one person can be completely impersonal to the next. To me there is a nostalgia to the slow ones, but it’s emotions revealed through the filter of time. Etude means ‘study’, but one can also write etudes on emotions, just as well as on finger dexterity.

What technical challenges does the music present for you?

It’s relatively easy to learn the etudes and play them at an average level. But what I find difficult – as with any music – is to play them in the most specific way, when it comes to rhythm, texture, sound…

To get the clockwork fine tuned in a piece like Opening is extremely delicate and difficult, to take one example. And of course playing a piece like Etude No.6 is quite difficult, and the repeated notes make me feel as if I’m playing a late-20th century Scarlatti.

Etude No.20 requires intense layering of texture and pedal sensitivity and No 15 demands an orchestral palette on the piano. The etudes can be extraordinary when played well, but, like almost all other music, they can also be rather bland when played in a bland way. But blame the performer in that case.

Are you working closely with Philip on any new material?

We’ve discussed briefly a new work, but it’s too early to say more…

Aside from the piano music, what is your favourite piece by Glass?

I saw Einstein on the Beach in Berlin two years ago. It blew my mind to experience it live. I will also mention his Violin Concerto No.1, as it was the first piece I heard by him. And I have to mention Koyaanisqatsi. It’s actually on Youtube, I recommend spending a Sunday afternoon watching and listening to the great work.

Do you play music by any of the other so-called ‘minimalists’?

Yes, but they’re really not minimalists… at least not since the early 70s! I’m playing John AdamsPiano Concerto in Leipzig in June and I’ve played a bit of Steve Reich as well. I love these composers but I’ve played far more Glass than either of those.

What is it like being signed to Deutsche Grammophon, and do you have any plans for future releases on the label?

We are meeting in Berlin in March to discuss next albums. We have roughly three different ideas on the drawing board and they are all very different from one another – and from the Glass album. I don’t want people to know what to expect too much, I’d love for each of my album to tell its own story, independent from the previous ones.

I love working with Deutsche Grammophon as we have a mutual love of listening to, exploring and discussing music. And of course I’ve listened to so many DG records in my life and gotten to know so much great music and so many great performances through the label. It’s both a privilege and pleasure to work with them.

You can find out more about the Midsummer Music festival in Reykjavik here, while you can also discover Vinterfest here. For more information on Víkingur himself, head to his own artist website