Under the benign gaze of Saturn, Jupiter, and a bright half -moon, a small ensemble of instrumentalists from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performed their final concert of three under the stars at the Morris Museum in Morristown NJ on Saturday, October 24. The nearly sold-out audience may have been shivering a little in the brisk air before the concert started, but the cold was forgotten as soon as the music began.
Franz Hasenöhrl (1885-1970) is not and never has been a household name in the world of music. Although he was a composition teacher in Vienna from 1938-1959, his sole published work was a truncated version of the already brief tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegal’s Merry Pranks). Richard Strauss (1864-1949) composed his musical story in 1894, basing it on an eponymous medieval legend. Hasenöhrl took bits and pieces of the Strauss original and in 1954 created this “frolic” for violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and double bass he christened “Till Eulenspeigal-Einmal Anders!” (Till Eulenspiegal-Another Way). Violinist Renée Jolles, clarinetist Alan Kay, Eric Reed on horn, Frank Morelli on bassoon, and Gregg August, bassist made what could have been a sow’s ear of a piece into a silk purse with their virtuoso execution. Although it is half the length of the original composition (which was written for a large orchestra), Hasenöhrl retained all of the difficulties for the musicians with just some of the charm. Playing nimbly with what must have been cold fingers, the five players didn’t miss a beat or a note. The famous Orpheus non-verbal communication was on display and especially vital in this piece with all its many entrances and sudden stops.
The second work on the hour-long concert was Septet in E flat major, Op.20 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1826), composed in 1799. Joined onstage by violist Dana Kelley and cellist Eric Bartlett, the group dug into this complex piece with panache and energy. Each musician had a moment to shine, but first among equals must surely be Alan Kay on clarinet. His achingly gorgeous solo line during the heart-stopping second movement (Adagio Cantabile) put the audience into a state of bliss. While none of these instruments are easy to play, performing outside in the chilly weather only adds to the difficulty. The agility of the string players and the supple, cheery playing of the winds made the whole challenging composition a joy to hear. It was also lovely to see how much fun they seemed to be having, in spite of the overhead noises and decreasing temperatures.
The Morris Museum’s “Lots of Strings Music Festival” has been a success by anyone’s estimation. The groups were all world-class. Performances maintained social distancing protocols and were well-attended. While the digital program was a real plus, it would be even more of one with notes on the works to be performed. The ambience of beautiful sunsets and beautiful music played outdoors could not be bettered. Ok, it could be a little warmer!
The Museum intends to come back with more music in the Spring. Stay tuned for further developments!