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Friendly persuasion works

October 26, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE best form of government, Thoreau said, is no government at all. I'd wager he would say it still, but with two exceptions: Iraq and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Orpheus, which performed an all-Mozart program with the splendid pianist Emanuel Ax at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday evening, is famed for surviving as a conductorless orchestra. In fact, the ensemble is precisely the opposite.

As if having some three dozen conductors, it plays with a big, bold sound, all its members jockeying for attention. Orpheus' accomplishment, if you want to call it that, is that these exceptional players can each manage to thump his or her chest and still be part of a virtuosic whole. They're fast. They're together. They're aggressive. They can be electrifying.

Yet everything -- middle-period Mozart, late Mozart, heart-on-sleeve Mozart, pomp-and-circumstance Mozart, deep Mozart, shallow Mozart -- comes out sounding the swashbuckling same. The orchestra has little sense of style, and Tuesday it could have been tackling Copland, Schoenberg or just about anything else. The cooperative phrasing was of little interest or originality. The ensemble was less balanced than merely ever-present.

But Orpheus has a saving grace. The players listen. And when someone gives them something worth listening to and for, they respond with individuality. On its own in the Overture to "Cosi fan tutte" and the "Haffner" Symphony, this was a band out to impress. But whenever Ax was playing in the two piano concertos on the program -- Nos. 17 and 25 -- pushy players became poets.

The concert was the first in Ax's "On Location" residency, in which he will appear with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guests at the Disney Hall over the next couple of weeks, focusing on Mozart, Strauss and, in recital with Yo-Yo Ma on Friday night, Beethoven.

Ax has a cherubic presence. Friendly and instantly likable -- even, reportedly, by victims of his practical jokes, for which he is renowned -- he is "Manny" to everyone and is sometimes taken for granted. He can seem reliable and satisfying but maybe lacking in mystique.

Ax can practice friendly persuasion on a very high level, though, as he did on this occasion. His playing brought nothing but pleasure.

Think of Orpheus, which is composed of elite New York freelancers, as a band of commuters forcing their way onto the subway at rush hour. They know exactly where they are going and how to get on board. They let no one get in their way, they look neither right nor left, up nor down, yet they move with a kind of purposeful collective majesty. Once they've made it inside, their eyes remain directed at newsprint or stare blankly, glazed over, making no contact.

Now imagine someone shuffles down the aisle whose remarkable presence alters the environment. Commuters no longer rush and shove but dance. Eyes make contact. Strangers talk to strangers.

That was precisely the effect in these concertos. The orchestral exposition of the first movement of the grandly mannered K. 503 (No. 25) was all C-major grandeur. Loud trumpets, loud violins, loud violas, loud timpani, loud winds resounded brilliantly but blankly in the Disney Hall. Then Mozart asks the piano to enter subtly, as if tugging at the elbow of a blowhard politician.

Ax's diffidence lasted about five seconds -- until he was the complete focus of attention. The sheen of his sound was golden, gleaming and substantial, and he radically changed the discourse. He played to the crowd. But he also played to his colleagues, listening to them, asking them to respond to him, and cold musicians turned warm. The cadenzas were those composed by pianist Alfred Brendel, yet another warm gesture to a colleague by Ax. This, Mozart's most magisterial concerto, became something approaching a lovefest.

In the earlier, more classically contained Concerto No. 17, K. 453, Ax offered a different lesson in nuance, but he accomplished the same taming of beasts. The Andante in particular was lovely in every way, edges of phrases rounded to burnished softness.

Unfortunately, Ax couldn't influence everything. The program began with the "Cosi" overture and moved backward in time, ending with the "Haffner." Orpheus' richness of tone was amazing in the opera overture, but where Mozart sets out to explore, in this opera, the ambiguity of the heart, the orchestra responded with the arrogance of knowing it all.

Orpheus' richness of tone was still amazing in the celebratory "Haffner," but by this time that richness had become bluster. The Finale was fast, spectacular and clearly calculated to attain a standing ovation.

Is it going too far to suggest a change of names? Maybe the pianist should be called Orpheus and the orchestra Manny.

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