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A vibrant and welcome change. Chamber Orchestra of Europe making its first US tour

Surprise, surprise. From beneath the stacks of press releases announcing new music groups that are ``capturing the imagination of audiences around the world with their precision and blazing energy'' comes an orchestra that actually lives up to its hype.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe -- a four-year-old enterprise of young musicians from a dozen countries -- is making its first coast-to-coast tour of the United States. On the basis of their early performances in New York, Boston, and Washington, the 45 musicians (their average age is 24) merit a good look and listen.

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Strings soar, brass blazes. There are no immediate weaknesses and imbalances that plague even the best community orchestras: timid soloists, woodwinds that won't hold their own against strings on both sides, French horns that enter off pitch.

There is great confidence that is immediately noticeable at the first drop of the baton and is carried through long evenings of demanding music -- Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart.

This is clearly a group of young musicians who have something to prove, and their chance taking provides a vibrant and welcome alternative to too-often staid performances of established orchestras.

Much of the well-packaged feel is undoubtedly due to the talents of artistic director Claudio Abbado, who holds posts atop the London Symphony Orchestra, La Scala in Milan, and others. Conductor Alexander Schneider leads the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra and for many years was a member of the Budapest String Quartet. Music director and founding member James Judd is one of Britain's outstanding young conductors. All are accompanying the orchestra through 13 cities, ending in Los Angeles Feb. 20.

The members themselves are chosen through rigorous audition in many cities. Many are former top prizewinners. By performing only six months of the year, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe hopes to guard against overfamiliarity and staleness that afflict more-permanent groups. Its organizers also hope to supplement the careers of aspiring soloists and members of smaller ensembles. And they expect that the diverse backgrounds and cultures of its members, drawn from every country in Europe, will unite for an unparalleled richness.

In their Boston performance, that richness was evidenced in great dynamic range -- hushed pianissimos, thundering crescendos -- and an overall sweetness. Though the orchestra seems to breathe as one instrument, the musicians tend to emote heavily onstage. Violinists sway in unison from the hips. Flutists mark time with great nods of the head. But based on audience foot-stomping that brought Mr. Abbado three times from the wings before intermission, the zealous manner was not without its musical consequence.

Origin of the group dates back to the summer of 1980. A handful of musicians who had played together in the European Community Youth Orchestra decided to explore the possibility of a permanent ensemble. A London concert backed by British businessman Peter Readman was so successful that a string of concerts followed: Italy, Germany, Austria, Britain, France, Holland, Hungary, Australia, and Singapore.

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Surviving the impracticalities -- no geographic center, musicians with obligations to other groups -- the orchestra has performed with such renowned artists as Kiri Te Kanawa, Rudolf Serkin, James Galway, and conductors Sir Georg Solti and Lorin Maazel. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe also has a string of nine recordings behind it on such labels as RCA, EMI, and Deutsche Grammophon.

Though initial backer Readman reportedly persuaded audiences and donors to part with substantial sums of money, the orchestra is now underwritten by the BOC Group, a multinational corporation based in London and Montvale, N.J.

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