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Concert Review

Chaminade trio proves a discovery in mixed Orion Ensemble program

Thu Mar 21, 2019 at 12:28 pm

By Hannah Edgar

The Orion Ensemble performed at PianoForte Wednesday night.

In its penultimate concert program of the year, the Orion Ensemble is doubling down on the globetrotting theme of its 26th season, this time with an apparent jaunt to France.

However, much like the Orions’ faux-Viennese November concert, the billing of Wednesday night’s concert at PianoForte Studios didn’t quite jibe with its actual content. 

Only one work by a French composer, Cécile Chaminade’s Piano Trio No. 2, held down a program that also included an early Beethoven opus. That Chaminade’s trio was one of three pieces by female composers on the program drew only passing mention—perhaps because it’s a non-issue for the enterprising Orions, who have long championed works by women.

For all the marketing eccentricities and interpretive incongruities—which were plenty audible last night—one thing is certain about the Orions: They sure know how to select repertoire. 

Chaminade (1857–1944) was one of the rare female composers who was publicly celebrated in her lifetime; a somewhat recent revival has dusted off some of her stirring and impressive works. Her Trio No. 2 in A minor was accompanied by 21st-century selections from two American women: Nancy Van de Vate, an old-guard tonalist who has since relocated to Vienna, and Stacy Garrop, the prominent Chicago-based composer who pens exuberant, sometimes quirky works. Even the Beethoven quartet was a roving pick, if not totally off the beaten path. 

Van de Vate’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano was written in 2014 but feels like it could have been written at any point in the last century. The five-movement work is structurally conservative, but with tone colors and rhythmic drive reminiscent of Shostakovich and even Weinberg. Regular guest violist Stephen Boe played his modal solos with a gorgeously honeyed sound, blending beautifully with clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle. Diana Schmück had some uncharacteristic halting moments and was most in her element when she was anchoring her compatriots’ more rhapsodic lines behind the keyboard.

Compositionally, however, the Romantic-era Chaminade trio was perhaps the greatest revelation. Though still a relatively early work—the composer was in her early twenties when she completed it—the trio embraces traditional forms while feeling organically spun end-to-end with some striking and distinctive contrapuntal flair.

Wednesday’s performance didn’t always receive the treatment its sensitive writing warranted. Orion violinist Florentina Ramniceanu’s brash playing set the tone for a muscular reading that didn’t quite fit the music, least of all in the sweeping second movement duets with cellist Judy Stone. What Ramniceanu, Stone, and Schmück did deliver, though, was heart and passion—certainly enough for the trio’s most arresting moments to not just land but stick.

The ensemble seemed most suited to the spiky strains of Little Bits, Garrop’s suite for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The five-movement sampling platter begins with rhythmically jagged serial cell transformations and ends with neo-klezmer clarinet stunts, by way of, among other things, a George Crumb tribute. The Orions have had the piece in their repertoire since its debut in 2000; Garrop’s zesty yet ingratiating idiom was the perfect outlet for their extra adrenaline.

Chamber works by Beethoven are similarly well-trodden by the Orion catalogue, but became an outlier Wednesday evening in more ways than one: Where familiarity bred insight in Little Bits, the Piano Quartet in E-flat major saw its foursome sounding sketchy and underrehearsed. (The hapless program annotator was similarly asleep at the wheel: The quartet is Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Op. 16 for piano and winds, not the unnumbered piano quartet erroneously referenced in the notes.)

A soggy opening that might have otherwise been a fluke ended up presaging a stale reading that sounded like, well, a  reading. After three lackluster movements, one wondered why the ensemble didn’t just lean into its theme and strike the Beethoven selection off the program entirely.

As a surprise intermezzo of sorts, high school wind quintets coached by Pirtle—the Earl Clemens Wind Quintet, of the Elgin Youth Symphony, and the Pairquarius Winds, from the CYSO—sandwiched intermission with brief performances, gamely tackling Mason Jones’s arrangement of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik. The performances were mature, assured, and earnest across the board, providing a worthwhile delight in an inconsistent evening.

The Orion Ensemble’s season concludes with “A Brahms Finale” 7 p.m. May 5 in Geneva. Additional dates and more info at orionensemble.org

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