Interview with Lambert Orkis – part 1
The first tour, back in 1984, was one of his first with the great Russian cellist, who went on to establish a post for him in Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra as principal keyboard-player.
“At the time, he was the greatest living cellist,” Orkis remembers. “Going to Australia with him was just wonderful; it was a great relationship. We toured for 11 years.”
Orkis’s decision to accept Musica Viva’s invitation to participate in their 2013 Festival is something of a blind leap; he has not played before with any of the other performers, and though he has made repertoire suggestions of his own, he is also willing to risk whatever comes his way at the event.
“I’ve had experience in the past of playing at Festivals like this,” he says. “Not recently. But I am flexible and can catch on quickly. My distinguished colleague Menahem Pressler once said that the difference between playing chamber music as part of an established ensemble and playing as part of a festival is ‘like the difference between marriage and a one-night stand.’ It’s fun! You see how it turns out.”
High on the list of probable repertoire is Brahms’ first piano quartet.
“You must think of it,” says Orkis, “as a piece about a man who has decided to commit suicide with a gun. At the moment of doing it, he finds he can’t. At the time that was considered a double tragedy.
“It’s a great piece – almost Beethoven-like – from darkness to light, with a gypsy Rondo at the end that’s like a grim desire to grab life by its throat and just live for all it’s worth.
“All of Brahms’ piano quartets got their start while Brahms was living at the Schumanns’ place, when Schumann was in hospital and Clara was in great distress. We will never know exactly what their relationship was, but we do know that he was in love with her.”
Understanding context, says Orkis, is both essential and sadly underrated. As a teacher at Temple University in Philadelphia and in masterclasses, Orkis is often frustrated by students who have learned the notes but not the background of the pieces they bring to him.
“I play a simple little game with my students. I ask them, ‘What’s the title of the piece? Don’t look at the music. What’s the metre? What key is it in? If it’s a vocal work, what do the words mean? Can you tell me something about the composer?’ They’re quite surprised, and often they don’t know.”
© Shirley Apthorp 2012