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Orpheus Chamber Orchestra precise with Schumann

The Sun-Sentinel

Founded some 35 years ago, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is a conductorless ensemble that attempts to bring the chamber music aesthetic to orchestral performance. On Wednesday at the Broward Center (courtesy of the Concert Association of Florida), Orpheus displayed precise ensemble and idiomatic musicality in scores by Robert Schumann.

Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale is a symphony in everything but name. Orpheus took that premise one step further by adding a slow movement crafted by composer Paul Chihara from themes in Schumann's Kinderszenen (Childhood Dreams). Best known for his scores for ballet (The Tempest) and film (Prince of the City, Crossing Delancey), Chihara has given these richly romantic motifs Technicolor treatment.

While this work is usually played by larger instrumental forces, the Orpheus players brought greater transparency, clarity and definition to Schumann's inner voicings. The insistent dotted rhythm of the Scherzo was tautly projected, and the Finale emerged properly grand and rousing, Chihara's lyrical synthesis providing a perfect transition.

Christian Zacharias was an imposing soloist in Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor. A winner of the Cliburn and Ravel competitions, Zacharias combines the modernist sensibility for flawless keyboard dexterity with the romantic penchant for striking interpretive gestures. He summoned crisp agility for the opening Allegro, attacking the cadenza with crackling bravura. Bursts of multihued, bell-like coloration adorned the lyrical Intermezzo. Zacharias' wonderful gradations of dynamics enlivened the Allegro vivace finale. Orpheus offered fiery support, with Matthew Dine's beautiful oboe solos standing out amid a first-rate ensemble performance.

Orpheus has commissioned six composers to write scores for the New Brandenburgs Project, a contemporary gloss on Bach's famous concertos. The program opened with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major. Some untidy ensemble work compromised the Allegro, but the concluding Gigue was realized with vivacious energy by nine string players and the efficient harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon.

The premiere of Muse by Christopher Theofanidis marked the second of the Brandenburg commissions. Theofanidis, a skilled orchestral composer, has created a pleasant, lightweight essay in 18th century concerto-grosso form. While Theofanidis' motoric syncopations tend to wear thin, the players dazzled in the score's brilliant pyrotechnics and lush string textures.