Beethoven, Brahms – and Brad Mehldau? Not the usual three Bs of concert music. But Mr. Mehldau, a jazz pianist and composer, held his own in unparalleled company last night, donning an orange outfit to make a decisive splash at Carnegie Hall playing his Variations on a Melancholy Theme with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
But first on the program was a selection of nine of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, for which the Orpheus, an unusual ensemble that performs without a conductor, was not at the top of its game. Played in succession, these extremely short pieces demand the utmost locked-in precision, full as they are of Brahms’ emotional swells and rhythmic ebbs and flows. There were certainly passages of real beauty in the performance – it’s Brahms, after all – and of power, as for example in the first waltz (“Im Ländler Tempo”) and later in the “Più animato.” But overall, the orchestra didn’t establish a firm sense of playing as one.
Enter the pianist. Variations on a Melancholy Theme does indeed open with a melancholy motif, but Mehldau’s spirited and fertile imagination lifts it into vivid, even joyful moods through the sequence of “variations” (to my ear, the definition seemed to be stretched). In no way is this a work of jazz transposed into the classical concert setting. In some sections jazz hardly comes into play at all. Rather, it freshens the palette of modernist 20th century concert music with hues from improvisational jazz. Lyrical passages build within dissonances. Variation No. 3, in fast 5/8 and 7/8 time, flew like a swarm of honeybees glorying in a field of flowers. The odd time signatures wafted into the next few Variations as well (and 5/8 time returned in an even faster solo encore – it seems to bring out some of the best in Mehldau both as composer and pianist). And through it all, the orchestra played as though thoroughly inspired.
As a composer the pianist is as comfortable with scripted statements (both complex and simple) as he is with improvisatory jazz. Maybe because of its warm solidity, the lingering major chord that closed Variation No. 7 stayed with me. The arching harmonies at the beginning of No. 8 and the clarinet in the long final Variation (a full-fledged mini-suite of its own) brought Gershwin to mind, an apt echo in a concert piece by a jazz musician. By these later movements I had stopped trying to discern the original theme, and felt none the worse for it. It’s a superb work and I was delighted to be present for its Carnegie Hall premiere.
Feeding off the audience’s warm reception of the Mehldau work, the orchestra returned after the break to deliver a straightforward, satisfying account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” Rather than causing a loss of focus, the absence of a conductor – that “conduit between the musicians and the audience,” as Executive Director Krishna Thiagarajan puts it in the program notes – seemed to let the composer speak “directly to you, through the artists on stage.” As it did with Brad Mehldau, so it did with Beethoven. The solid opening theme and the “funeral march” of the second movement had appropriate gravitas; the turbo-charged Scherzo got the blood flowing; and the final movement’s theme-and-variations structure provided a bit of thematic continuity from the Mehldau work. As the communally-run Orpheus might say, it takes a village to create a mature performance from an inspiring work.