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jazz: An Intimate Orchestra

Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra have mastered the heart and technique of Beethoven.

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The pianist will perform with his frequent collaborators, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, at the Modlin Center Oct. 7. For the past 30 years, Orpheus has used an innovative, if unconventional creative process, there has been no one leader. The 25 members rotate principal chairs and concertmaster responsibilities. "They wanted to play the repertoire but not be at the mercy of a conductor," Goode says.

"Working with a smaller group has its advantages," he says. "We're not limited by time constraints, and I get to work with the other musicians as individuals."

The ensemble is well-matched to the program — Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. "[Pianist] Claude Frank called the fourth the most beautiful of the piano concertos," Goode says. "It is marvelously poetic, with unusual gentleness in the first movement."

"Although it's rarely done with a chamber orchestra," he says, "it's a relatively intimate piece. A full orchestra tends to swamp the winds and piano. In Beethoven's time the orchestras were smaller, of course pianos were smaller, too."

Beethoven's writing for piano in the fourth Concerto was a breakthrough for the still-developing instrument. (In the 14 years between Beethoven's first Concerto the completion of the fifth (and last), the piano evolved from a 175-pound, five-octave, double-stringed harpsichordlike device to a six-octave, triple-stringed device weighing nearly twice as much.) The piece opens with solo piano and then uses the instrument's increasing range and power as a counterbalance to the sonic weight of the rest of the ensemble.

The coequal tension escalates in the second movement into "a confrontation that prefigures composers of far later in the 19th century," according to Goode. "The piano and the orchestra conduct a dramatic, operatic dialogue."

Musical historian Owen Jander has linked this interchange to a specific sequence of lines in the Gluck opera "Orfe," and interprets the entire concerto as a programmatic retelling of the legend of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's namesake.

Such felicitous synchronicity aside, what mattered the most to Beethoven was the music, not only the notes but also the expressive intent. "He allowed himself a lot of leeway in his playing," Goode says. "At the same time, he was capable of hitting his students with a ruler if they missed a note."

Goode's mastery of heart and technique has resulted in critical acclaim. The influential "Penguin Guide to Classical Recordings" calls his Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle "the clear choice of the digital era." But the pianist is skeptical of the pristine capabilities of modern technology. "The older recordings provide a very harmonic, but not so naturalistic sound," he says. "They are a bit like black-and-white movies, forcing people to use their imagination, to concentrate less on the detail, and more on the whole. As much is lost as gained with excessive clarity."

Keeping the music vital is the key challenge. "For Beethoven, improvisation and composition were the accomplishments. Playing music that was already written was not so great," he says. "It puts performing his music in a certain perspective: the best we can do is to realize the importance of playing in an improvisatory manner."

"That's what composition is," Goode says. "Perfected improvisation, written down." S



Richard Goode and The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will play the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall Monday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $26 adults, $24 seniors, $22 faculty/staff, $13 children, UR students free. Call 289-8980.

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