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Gil Shaham and Orpheus dramatic in Brahms

Gil Shaham
Lehigh Valley Music

By Steve Siegel

Anyone who believes a chamber orchestra can render only a lightweight reading of such a full-bodied work as Brahms’ violin concerto should have heard violinist Gil Shaham have a go at it with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on Wednesday evening at the Williams Center.

Shaham and Orpheus performed Brahms’ blockbuster with a chamber music sensibility that added detail yet kept all the drama intact.

Shaham, his head slightly bent in concentration, calmly waited out the orchestra’s introductory passages. Then, like a sudden flash of lightning, he entered the piece, playing with rapturous energy and warmth in an animated display of smiles, crouches and hops. As the smoke cleared in the calmer passages, he revealed an incredible sweetness in the upper register, and a delicate intimacy without a trace of sentimentality or self-indulgence.

Shaham’s wild flights of virtuoso fancy, especially in the spellbinding first movement cadenza, never came at the price of structural integrity. He communed with the entire orchestra throughout the work, performing almost selflessly — if that is possible in such a spotlighted role — and treated the sold-out audience to a third movement coda of exquisite delicacy and a perfectly-judged final decrescendo.

Shaham's selflessness was even evident in his encore, Fritz Kreisler's “Schön Rosmarin,” performed with the orchestra, not as a solo.

The orchestra was in its groove right from the opening work, Mendelssohn’s rarely heard overture to “The Fair Melusine,” Op.32. There was drama here too, with many passages navigating seas as stormy as the composer’s better-known “Hebrides” overture.

A more austere atmosphere prevailed in the world premiere of Cynthia Lee Wong’s “Memoriam,” the first work to be performed in Orpheus’s Project 440 series. The message of the piece is clearly in its title. A solemn drone from the cellos and basses set a melancholic mood, followed by a chorus of woodwinds emulating the woodsy voices of bamboo flutes. Crying violins and weeping flutes become increasingly more agitated until a mournful solo cello ends the deathwatch, and the soul takes flight in ascending glissandos from the strings.

The soothing classicism of Haydn’s breezy “La Chasse” (The Hunt) was a cheerful follow-up to Wong’s more wistful piece. Orpheus excelled in the crisp phrasing of its stately andante and grandiose menuetto, the latter notable for a lovely oboe and bassoon obbligato. The final presto movement, from which the piece gets its name, was a real toe-tapper, with jaunty woodwinds sounding merry hunting choruses. Its coda still catches many off guard — what appears to be a rousing conclusion really isn’t, and the piece ends unusually quietly.