A Perfect Blend

By Robert Lee Wolfe III

When most people think of chamber music, they think of talented musicians playing complex classical pieces that haven't changed in hundreds of years. Such an arrangement is not the sort that typically encourages innovation within the field of music. One may thus find oneself appropriately skeptical of a chamber music performance that generates hype. By the same argument, one finds oneself appropriately refreshed when the hype is entirely warranted.

The residence of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the University of Maryland is a benefit to all who see them perform. For those unacquainted with the group, the members perform without a conductor, a technique that lends them a presence more akin to that of a jazz band, and a sound that vibrates with a certain earthy intimacy that a more traditional orchestra would have trouble achieving. One grows to know the sounds of each performer personally, and while I'll confess that my relationship with the brass instruments was as troubled as it's ever been, every musician surprised, impressed, and above all spoke in a language not foreign but saturated with intricate dialect.

Of course the sounds of one performer were privileged above the sounds of all the rest. I refer, of course, to Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the show's centerpiece and the primary source of the aforementioned hype. As a young writer, few things make me recoil more than a review like the one published by the New York Times about Thibaudet, which asserts that "every note he fashions is a pearl." I suspect that most readers would be made nauseous by such rhetoric. However, it is true that Thibaudet is a French pianist with credentials to rival Chomsky and LuPone in their respective fields and a level of demand that any artist would envy. It is surprising, given his reputation both in the world of music and in the realm of music criticism, that he did not disappoint.

It's not unusual to hear concertgoers talk about the inimitable value of live performance as concerns classical music. Until seeing Thibaudet live, I don't think there was any way I could have understood what such a statement means. A piano with Thibaudet at the helm becomes more than a piano, sounds like something beyond percussion. Similarly, Thibaudet himself becomes more than Thibaudet, his arms fluttering with the glorious rapidity and precision of a dancer of the most unconventional sort. One can hardly imagine a more perfect blend than that of the intricately human tones of the Orpheus orchestra behind such a talent as Thibaudet. I count this performance an important lesson in my music education, one that will help me to understand and appreciate further displays of musical genius.