Concert to Come: Friends of Chamber Music Presents Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Two Top Soloists Join the Distinguished Ensemble for an Inspired Program of Concert Work from Film Composers

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra returns to Kansas City with an ambitious program featuring not one but two soloists from beyond the classical tradition: Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital and Polish accordionist Ksenija Sidorova.

Presented by Friends of Chamber Music, the ensemble performs a program titled “Stars Align,” featuring concert work from prolific film composers from both the golden age of Hollywood and today.

Orpheus, founded in 1972, appears frequently with FoCM, most recently in 2016 during the Friends’ 40th anniversary season.

Offering a unique performance practice, Orpheus performs without a conductor. “That is one of its distinctive features,” said Cynthia Siebert, founder, president and CEO of Friends of Chamber Music. “There is nothing quite like it, the kind of energy and intensity, the liveness and the investment, the possessiveness of every single person.”

The ensemble operates with co-artistic directors on rotation, and makes musical decisions together in rehearsal, not determined from one perspective. With no conductor, there is also no go-between distancing the music makers from the audience.

“The group breaks all those barriers . . . political barriers, cultural barriers, that have been ground in for centuries, sort of denying that that was the only way to make music, and that took a certain amount of courage,” said Seibert.

In planning their season, the ensemble knew it wanted to work with Avital, a star on the rise of worldwide recognition as a leading mandolinist. Siebert has been watching his career grow for the past seven or eight years. “His passion has driven him to do things on that instrument that people didn’t think were possible before,” she said.

“He’s been amazing in terms of bringing new works into existence or transcribing works.”

The group had previously performed with mandolinist Chris Thile, so they knew Orpheus worked well with the instrument.

Avital suggested bringing in Sidorova, whom he has partnered with in projects before, and who is a worldwide touring artist in her own right. However, while there is excellent, but limited, repertoire for chamber orchestra and mandolin, there is nothing for this unique pairing of mandolin and accordion.

“We had to start thinking about what we could do to create a program around this remarkable duo,” said Alan Kay, clarinetist and co-artistic director for Orpheus.

To remedy that, the ensemble commissioned two works. They reached out to Paul Chihara, a longtime friend of Orpheus, to arrange Johann Sebastian Bach’s Double Concerto in c minor, BMW 1060R, originally for violin and oboe.

Chihara has written more than 90 scores for film and television, as well as ballet and concert music. This arrangement is part of a new initiative for the ensemble: Now Hear This. “As we built the season we realized that we were featuring a number of compositions that had been reworked and reimagined,” says Kay.

“Since the time of Vivaldi and Bach, there’s been a proud tradition in classical music of taking great music that already exists, and, as a show of admiration and respect for the original composers, presenting it in another guise,” says Kay. “Each piece under our ‘Now Hear This’ heading this season is a mark of our respect for certain pieces so powerful and superb that they can hold their own in almost any setting.”

Orpheus also commissioned a new work from composer and conductor Benjamin Wallfisch, who has created or contributed to hundreds of film scores, including “Blade Runner 2049,” “Hidden Figures” and “A Cure for Wellness.”

Writing for an ensemble as unique and specific as Orpheus, and then adding non-traditional solo instruments, could be daunting, but Wallfisch met the challenge both musically and logistically. “He understands Orpheus; he gets us, including the fact that we play with no conductor. It’s a very collaborative affair, and we are going to be working directly with our soloist, not through the medium of a conductor,” said Kay.

This work, which premieres just a week before Kansas City audiences experience it, is part of Orpheus’ “American Notes” project, which engages composers from diverse backgrounds (Wallfisch, for instance, is British) to explore a question of American identity.

With Chihara and Wallfisch in mind, Orpheus decided to build the program around the concert work of film composers and selected works from Hollywood’s golden era, from composers who had immigrated to America. “There are so many examples in music history of composers, especially in the golden age of Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, who were classically trained but had to leave Europe,” said Kay.

Franz Waxman came to the United States in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi Germany. He wrote scores for “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Rear Window,” along with nearly 60 other films, and won Oscars for “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Place in the Sun.” Orpheus performs his Sinfonietta for Strings and Timpani, written in 1955, featuring timpanist Maya Gunji.

Nino Rota worked extensively with Federico Fellini and, among other accolades, won an Academy Award for the score for “The Godfather: Part II” (he also scored the first “Godfather” film). Rota’s Canzona, from 1935, evokes a similar old-world atmosphere with fluid quietude.

Miklós Rósza, originally from Hungary and living all over Europe before coming to the United States, wrote nearly 100 film scores (“Spellbound,” “A Double Life” and “Ben-Hur” garnered Academy Awards) and maintained an extensive catalog of classical works. His “Hungarian Serenade” harkens to his early years, said Kay. “It’s kind of a nationalistic piece . . . remembering the music or the folk idioms that he grew up with, this kind of microcosm of his own musical upbringing.”

To those familiar with these artists’ film works, the program offers a different perspective to their artistic output; to those entrenched in traditions of Bach or early 20th-century romanticism, the program presents diverse, yet complementary, styles. Orpheus, as radical as ever, celebrates these inventive timbral explorations and the virtuosity of the performers, presented in a new light.

Friends of Chamber Music presents Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For information on tickets and listening guides visit www.chambermusic.org.

Above: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is known for its unique practice of performing without a conductor. (photo by Matt Dine)

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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