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Music Review

Of One Mind and Many Styles

Orpheus chamber group plays superbly sans conductor as Branford Marsalis sits in.

April 02, 2001|RICHARD S. GINELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By now, it's old news that New York's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra doesn't use a conductor and doesn't need one. Yet it's still astonishing to watch this ensemble in action, to hear how unanimously the musicians play while executing collective interpretive decisions normally made by a figure with a baton.

Beyond that, there were two other chief attractions of their concert Saturday night in the Colburn School's Zipper Hall: the superb program geared toward, but not exclusively devoted to, 20th century French music and a rare appearance by jazz's Branford Marsalis in his classical guise.

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The chameleon-like oldest Marsalis brother made a brief stab at the classics in 1986 with a rather dreary album of transcriptions. But now, several years and several musical zigzags later, he has returned to the field with a more mature, searching musicality--and not insignificantly, genuine saxophone repertoire.

He brought an easygoing yet idiomatic swing and a mellow, absolutely legato tone to the elegant neoclassicisms of Ibert's Concertino Da Camera, and threw a sweetly withdrawn veil over the long-limbed melodies and cadenzas of Pierre Max Dubois' Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra.

Marsalis also sat in with the wind section during a rhythmically smoothed-out yet deliciously raucous performance of Milhaud's "La Creation Du Monde," and played lead in transcriptions of Debussy's "The Little Shepherd" and "Golliwog's Cake Walk." For jazz interlopers, it was a novelty just to hear Marsalis on alto sax--he usually plays tenor and soprano saxes in jazz concerts--bringing out the soprano only for "The Little Shepherd."

Without Marsalis, the Orpheus exploited the Zipper's warm acoustical properties with a lush yet firm turn through Faure's Pavane. And in what amounted to a welcome encore to Los Angeles' recent Stravinsky Festival, they delivered a brilliantly pointed, sometimes underpowered, yet always ravishingly played "Pulcinella" Suite.

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