By looking at a map you would never think that it would make any sense to stop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on your way to Germany from Chile, yet that is exactly what the chamber orchestra Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen did. Somehow, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) was able to book this elite ensemble – although not that well known on these shores – for their only North American appearance of the season as an addendum to a triumphant tour of South America. If you’ve come all this way, might as well stay awhile so this performance was the second of their visit.

Since the 2011-12 CPA catalog, in writing about these performances, stated “Under the artistic direction of Grammy award-winning Estonian conductor Paavo Jarvi…” it came as a bit of a surprise that this would be a conductor-less concert; not that there’s anything wrong with that. With the absence of a maestro on a podium we were able to observe the two primary ways that replace that usual configuration: the concertmaster becoming the timekeeper and person to look to for cues, and the concerto soloist taking over those duties.

After a brief introduction by the clarinetist, with his oddly juxtaposed British accent, the orchestra launched into the 80th symphony of Haydn, another of his works associated with late 18th century movement in the arts known as Sturm und Drang. To many, this was the seed of the Romantic sensibility where extremes of emotion and even attempts at frightening the audience were paramount. As can be expected, most of these works are in minor keys and this D minor symphony opened with a great feeling of angst and anxiety. There was no loss felt for lack of a central arm-waving figure and the concertmaster ably fulfilled this function (Note: by the second concert, inserts containing the orchestra roster were nearly gone and I was unable to get one to identify players).  One of the notable, but often overlooked, aspects of music is the creative use of silence. In this symphony, Haydn used this device to both great comic and dramatic effect and the players reveled in this playful game with the listener.

All musicians who blow into their respective instruments left the stage and we were left with the strings for the chamber orchestra version of Arnold Schoenberg’s early, but greatly influential work, Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Written in 1899, originally as a string sextet, it is based on a poem of Richard Dehmel that tells the story of new lovers walking in the woods as the woman confesses she is carrying another man’s child. His initial reaction and subsequent changes to this unpleasant news is brilliantly conveyed in the score. One of the knocks against orchestras sans conductor is that they do fine only with works that are rhythmically and dynamically predictable. However, these players were unerring in their entrances, played with great sensitivity and conveyed the psychological and emotional torture of the text in this masterpiece of string writing. The shimmering, peaceful ending was especially effective.  

Stefan Litwin, Professor of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill, is one of the new breed of performers who favors, and even teaches methods of, the lecture-recital. This serves many purposes: audience education of the work about to be played, gaining rapport with the listener as not just some self-absorbed unapproachable classical soloist, and also audibly demonstrating some facets and “secrets” of the music. Litwin, speaking into a headset microphone that could have been clearer, spoke about Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and had some interesting, although debatable points. He portrayed this work as a “military concerto” and also posited that this was a direct link to the Schoenberg work we had just heard.

The brooding opening of this concerto is in keeping with the minor and somewhat foreboding and uneasy feel of the works that came before. There seemed to be a conflict between Litwin and the concertmaster as both took up the conductor’s mantle at different times, but these musicians are professionals and when in doubt they all played with the music, not with a pair of waving hands. Some of Beethoven’s most sublime music is saved for the slow movement of his piano concertos (particularly the fifth) and here Litwin played with consummate expressiveness and feeling. The third movement takes a major turn to the sunnier side of life as we get great fugato sections, virtuoso writing for both soloist and orchestra, and a general feeling (if we are to follow the “military concerto” designation) that we kicked some butt.