How should classical music ensembles return to live performance after 18 months of pandemic closures and a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice?
It’s a question that has loomed as programmers decide whether to open their seasons with statements of purpose. Recently, two major New York groups — the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra — returned with what appeared to be mostly standard fare that could come across as timid missed opportunities, yet offered exceptionally fine and committed music-making that felt like acts of renewal.
At Carnegie Hall last Thursday, Bernard Labadie, the music director of St. Luke’s since 2018, warmly greeted the audience and explained that when he and the players started planning their program, “one word jumped out: joy.” This concert was all about having some fun, he added, and Handel’s “Water Music” is “the happiest music I know.”
He led the orchestra in a lively, stylish account of the complete “Water Music,” 22 pieces lasting some 50 minutes. Handel wrote this score to provide entertainment for King George I and his entourage during a river trip in 1717 from Whitehall Palace in London to the borough of Chelsea. “Water Music” is best known for the various suites drawn from it — which, for me, more effectively show off the allures of the music and the rich intricacies Handel subtly folded into each piece. But, judging by their enthusiastic ovation, the audience seemed happy to go along for the entirety of Handel’s musical river ride.
This Baroque program began with a vigorous account of the Prelude from Charpentier’s “Te Deum,” music that deftly mixes martial-like rigor and sparkling ebullience. Next came a Bach novelty, a “weird creature of my imagination,” as Labadie described it, titled “An imaginary Concerto for Violin.” During his busy years in Leipzig, Germany, Bach often recycled existing movements from instrumental pieces into large sacred scores, Labadie explained. So, with respect and plucky daring, Labadie fashioned a concerto from three Bach movements that feature a solo violin: two sinfonias sandwiching an adagio from the “Easter Oratorio.” The result was a sort-of concerto, with an industrious first movement, a mournful slow one and a fleet finale, made to order for the splendid violinist Benjamin Bowman, who played beautifully.
At the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, two Mozart staples dominated the program by Orpheus, which in 2022celebrates its 50th anniversary as a proudly conductor-less ensemble. (The evening was also the start of the venue’s classical music season.) Opening the concert was a short work by the 18th-century composer and violinist Joseph Boulogne, whose life and musical achievements have been gaining renewed attention. The ensemble gave a vibrant account of the beguiling, three-movement Overture to “L’Amant Anonyme,” Boulogne’s only surviving opera.
Then the distinguished pianist Richard Goode, who has collaborated with Orpheus since the mid-1970s, including recordings of Mozart concertos, appeared as the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, a majestic and virtuosic score. Goode was at his best, in a sensitive, crisply clear and supremely musical performance. The orchestra ended with an exciting account of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony. With just 25 players in the Y’s intimate hall, the music came across grandly, but also with revealing detail.
I wish someone from Orpheus had spoken, as Labadie had for St. Luke’s, about the ensemble’s reasons for choosing the works it had for this significant return. There were not even program notes available. Some artists prefer to let music speak for itself. But maybe this is a time when classical musicians need to speak directly about what they are playing, and why.