The Orchestra Of St. Luke's: Home At Last

The Orchestra of St. Luke's opens The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan. (Courtesy of the OSL)
The Orchestra of St. Luke's opens The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan. (Courtesy of the OSL)

Conductor Ivan Fischer is bemused, calm and confident. A sly smile curls the corners of his mouth and his eyes twinkle with mischief as a thought occurs to him.

For the past week and a half, Fischer has been working with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. The ensemble is a busy part-time collective comprised of some of New York's finest freelancers. Which is to say, some of the sharpest musicians in the world. Fischer led the orchestra in a well-received Carnegie Hall performance. Now he's conducting the ensemble as they open their eagerly anticipated new home on the west side of Manhattan, the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. It's on the lower level of a building full of artists including Mikhail Baryshnikov and his Baryshnikov Arts Center.

The OSL invited Performance Today to help inaugurate its hall after decades of playing in venues around the city. Our microphones hang 12 feet overhead; the orchestra is comfortably arrayed at the center of this large rehearsal/recording space. About 130 friends and patrons of the orchestra are seated in folding chairs around the group. On the podium, I ask Fischer to take us inside the piece the OSL is playing — Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. He explains the way composer toys with rhythm. His eyes widen as he talks about a funny contrasting section, "something very slow and like a little snake, that just kind of curls around ..."

Without a pause he makes a snaky sound, his eyes bulge, his neck lengthens and his head quickly dips and bobs. His shoulders go left, his hips go right and his arms twitch in a gawky but endearingly enthusiastic imitation of a snake. Everyone in the room (orchestra members included) laughs at his physical display. But moments later, when we hear it in the music, darned if his awkward little dance wasn't the perfect illustration of the sound.

Every person defies brief description, but if I may, this was a very Ivan Fischer moment. Immensely intelligent, he knows the history and repertoire of classical music cold. But his intelligence has rich warmth, a willingness to engage with any audience, to play — even to make himself utterly silly if it's in service of the music and our appreciation of it.

At his suggestion, we unpack Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 section by section, talking between movement breaks as the orchestra plays the piece. It's a choice sure to twist the knickers of purists who want Symphonus Uninterruptus. But Fischer's deft descriptions are so illuminating, only the most hardened defenders of the 20th century's once controversial turn toward enforced concert silence will remain unmoved. His observations are smart, entertaining, on point and blessedly brief. We do the same with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in the first part of the concert. I'll never hear Prokofiev's symphony the same way again after his characterization of a bassoon and violin duet in the opening movement: "If I would do a cartoon, I would always think of ducks at that point ... for me this is purely, absolutely ducks."

Two welcoming symphonies, a terrific conductor leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's (and us!) through incredible music, and a celebratory occasion, as the orchestra finally settles into their own home at the DiMenna Center after 32 years of itinerant existence. It all makes for an experience I'll not soon forget. Enjoy!

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