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Pay Bach

A chamber orchestra brings a world premiere to the Modlin Center.

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Four years ago, the Grammy-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra issued a challenge to a group of composers: Take Johann Sebastian Bach's six Brandenburg concertos as a model and compose new works worthy of the ensemble's virtuosic players. The resulting project, the New Brandenburgs, has yielded five new compositions and will culminate with the premier of a work entitled “Sea Orpheus” on Jan. 29 at the Modlin Center.

According to the orchestra's executive director, Graham Parker, the new composers were told only “to be inspired by” the Brandenburg concertos—“not to model them, not to mirror them—to be inspired by them.”  Each response yielded an entirely different take on Bach. The results are exciting, Parker says. “All [of the composers] approached it from such different vantage points.” Some chose to cling to Bach's original structure, some paid homage in a more general sense to Bach's rigor, innovation and delight in music.

A self-governing ensemble, Orpheus musicians run the show backstage and participate in every aspect of the organizations' programming choices. This democratic, artist-centered philosophy has yielded some of the most inspired decisions in the classical world.  The project was conceived by clarinetist Alan Kay, at that time wearing his other hat as Orpheus' director. The notion of inviting composers to participate in a multiyear, large-scale project was a stroke of prescience in 2006, as American classical ensembles are now struggling with desperate economic realities. As Parker notes, “American organizations love to invest in American talent.”  Aside from the venerable Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the commission project supports a stable of the finest American composers. The result is what the Parker calls “little masterpieces.”  For the most studious and devoted of Bach fans, New York station WQXR (105.9 FM) will broadcast each of the New Brandenburgs alongside its companion work by Bach. The more tech-savvy can hear the cycle streamed over the internet.

Composed by Maxwell Davies, “Sea Orpheus” retains the original instrumentation of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, substituting a modern piano for Bach's harpsichord. The stature enjoyed by Orkney Island resident Maxwell Davies cannot be overstated—his work has been likened to that of Shostakovich in terms of sheer importance. As of this writing, the musicians of Orpheus had not yet heard Maxwell Davies' work themselves. Richmond music lovers will enjoy the world premier of “Sea Orpheus” even before audiences at Carnegie Hall. Featuring guest pianists Angela Hewitt and Christopher Taylor, the concert will also feature gems by Dvorak and Stravinsky.

When Bach died 260 years ago, blind but still diligently working on “The Art of the Fugue,” he could not have guessed that he would become one of the best-loved, most enduring composers of all time. His work is not just enjoyed today, but revered, studied, examined. Every college music major has had his or her brains parboiled in Bach. The notion of tampering with his work — or even reconsidering it — seems the very definition of musical sacrilege. But Bach had to compose music every week for Sunday services and lived the necessity of making new music all the time, so he would probably be tickled pink to see how his work has inspired the latest generation of his musical heirs.

The Margrave of Brandenburg never paid Bach for his concertos. With the New Brandenburgs, Orpheus finally gives the old man his due.  S

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with pianist Angela Hewitt and Christopher Taylor, will perform Peter Maxwell Davies' “Sea Orpheus,” along with selections by Stravinsky, Bach and Dvorak, on Jan. 29 at the Alice Jepson Theatre at the Modlin Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $18-$36. For information, call 289-8980 or go to http://modlin.richmond.edu.

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