Mehldau, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Challenge Convention at Carnegie Hall
Riding high in several fields of musical endeavor, pianist and composer Brad Mehldau at mid-career has the authority to flout the occasional convention to make a point. So when, on Oct. 9, he entered stage right at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium decked out in orange plaid shirt, orange pants and orange sneakers—hardly the black-tie garb common to that stage—it wasn’t much of a stretch to infer a challenge to more than sartorial custom. What followed, in fact, suggested a challenge to musical convention.
The occasion was the New York premiere of the orchestral version of “Variations On A Melancholy Theme,” an adaptation of a solo piece he had written for pianist Kirill Gerstein. The orchestration, commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, represented a return to the concerto form for Mehldau, whose contributions to the chamber literature have ranged from small-scale works, like art songs and the solo “Variations,” to a 2007 piece for piano and orchestra, “The Brady Bunch Variations.” The commission for the 30-plus-strong Orpheus offered Mehldau an opportunity to revisit the relationship between soloist and orchestra.
To be sure, Mehldau’s latest “Variations” paid some fealty to what had come before—namely, Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes,” which opened the concert. Like the variations, the waltzes are brilliant nuggets, each of which makes a discrete statement but is perhaps best viewed as part of a whole. The waltzes, nine of which were presented, offered a logical lead-in for “Variations,” which opened with Mehldau on piano stating his primary motif—a five-note chromatic-inflected phrase that was also a waltz—with Brahms-like clarity.
But Mehldau made clear in the program notes that any homage paid to Brahms would be tempered by other loyalties. “I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues,” he wrote. In executing that vision, he articulated a role for himself and the orchestra akin to soloist and sidemen in a jazz group. The Orpheus, attuned to his pianistic musings, “reacts differently” from musical occurrence to musical occurrence, he wrote, engaging in “heat-of-the-moment interaction.”
For such a relationship to work well, it helped that the Orpheus is a democratically oriented organization, lacking a conductor and the hierarchy that entails, as well as the prejudices sometimes attendant to groups that have had marked success playing the European classics on the world’s great stages.
It also helped that the Orpheus-commissioned piece, written last year, had been honed in previous performances. It had its world premiere in November in Moscow, the kickoff to a European tour. And it had its American premiere in Worcester, Mass., two nights before the Carnegie date. Both orchestra and soloist thus had some chance to develop the kind of simpatico Mehldau was seeking, and in no small measure achieved.
The simpatico was evident in the nearly seamless integration of the orchestra’s notated statements and Mehldau’s explorations on piano, whether those explorations were rendered in tandem with the celesta, temple blocks and strings as part of a background for a violin solo, as in Variation No. 2; as part of a sparkling turn that rose above the orchestra as it rumbled through Latin-tinged passages in 5/8 and 7/8 time, as in Variation No. 4; or as part of an extended cadenza, as in Variation No. 11.
That variation, the final one, took up fully half of the piece’s nearly 40-minute running time. Highlighted by a swooning clarinet solo—a possible nod to Gershwin, an earlier emissary to the concert stage with whom Mehldau might have enjoyed trading notes—the variation moved apace through permutations of and deviations from the original theme. Amid the rush of sound, Mehldau’s cadenza offered time and space to stretch out and reflect.
It wasn’t until his encore, however, that what Mehldau had hinted at in his keyboard flights throughout the evening was fully realized. The encore, an extended extrapolation from the original theme, found Mehldau in a somewhat melancholy mood but in full command, spinning a contrapuntal weave that, in retrospect, rendered the orchestra’s scripted statements at once clearer and, by comparison, slightly smaller in scope.