In a musical democracy, Orpheus, Ax are luminous

Chicago Tribune

The playing of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra elegantly refutes the notion (often voiced by conductors, not surprisingly) that a collective mind is unlikely to produce the same caliber of performance produced by a single mind.

In fact, there were times during its concert Wednesday night at Symphony Center when one wondered why other small orchestras don't do as the Orpheus does and simply forgo a conductor. Who needs the dictatorship of the baton when you have musical democracy in its most enlightened form-a true collaboration in which every player can voice his or her own ideas?

Wednesday's program was all-Mozart and, as such, gave these 34 superb musicians ample opportunity to show us what we have been missing with a lot of the humdrum Mozart concerts that have come our way during this 250th-birthday year. These free-spirited readings were full of the energy and intensity that have been Orpheus trademarks for 34 years.

Pianist Emanuel Ax first appeared with the orchestra 30 years ago and he could now be considered an honorary member, so smoothly does his intimate and refined style of playing complement theirs. On this occasion he offered a pair of Mozart piano concertos, No. 25 in C major (K.503) and No. 17 in G (K.453).

Chicago listeners were fortunate over the years to have heard Daniel Barenboim conduct Mozart concertos from the keyboard. The difference here was that Ax stuck to his soloistic duties, with only an occasional flourish of his left hand to mark the beat. Both performances were satisfying examples of orchestral chamber music writ large, with Ax taking more the role of primus inter pares than soloist.

Ax and the Orpheus proved you don't need large forces to convey the breadth and grandeur of the C major concerto. And who needs a conductor getting in the way of the delicious piano-woodwind dialogues of the G-major work? Ax's pianism was thoughtful, musical and had a lapidary finish, despite the somewhat ill-tuned Steinway. And everyone played with a degree of involvement you seldom hear in big-name orchestral performances of Mozart's music.

In the Andante movement of K.453, the pianist gave full rein to Mozartean sentiment without getting sticky about it. The subtlety with which he shaped long, flowing phrases made them seem the product of a great Mozart singer. What gave these readings so much of their spontaneous feel was the heightened contact between Ax and his colleagues provided by the chamber-music scale. This was as close to flawless as Mozart playing gets.

So it went throughout the program, which opened with a buoyant, nicely articulated "Cosi Fan Tutte" overture and ended with a suitably brilliant Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner"). No baton-twirler was needed to affix a firm interpretative stamp on both performances.