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Music Review

Of One Mind and Many Styles

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


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.


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a mellow, absolutely legato tone to the elegant neoclassicisms of Ibert's Concertino Da Camera, and threw a sweetly withdrawn veil over the long-limbed melodies and cadenzas of Pierre Max Dubois' Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra.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