CCM opens season with a wide-ranging Italian program

Mon Oct 01, 2012 at 1:43 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil performed works of Respighi, Tosti and Rossini Sunday night with Chicago Chamber Musicians.

The Chicago Chamber Musicians opened their new season leading from strength as committed performers who put variety, drama and adventurous repertoire to the fore.

Sunday evening’s concert at Nichols Concert Hall began with bravura. The two-trumpet concertos by Vivaldi and Franceschini were meant for the large and resonant space of a Baroque church where the heroic sonority and flashy interplay of the two soloists can be enjoyed at full strength.  The bright but unresonant acoustic of Sunday’s venue was confining and the agile soloists’ sound (Charles Geyer and Barbara Butler) proved a little overwhelming with the strings reduced to a quartet with continuo.

The  familiar Vivaldi (the only trumpet concerto he ever wrote) is a guilty pleasure of a piece and the Franceschini—written a generation earlier than the Vivaldi, but sounding very like it—was  dispatched stylishly by the ensemble  including Joseph Genualdi and Baird Dodge, violins, Li-Kuo Chang, viola and Clancy Newman, cello.

Singer Jazimina MacNeil  and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu were featured in the ensuing, rather lengthy vocal and piano section, which featured material from the lightweight to the extraordinary.

The former were some Victorian songs by Sir Paolo Tosti, which are much beloved by singers as vocal showcases, and by audiences as musical gems. The songs were chosen from the most familiar, starting with the flowing La Serenata  and including the martial rhythm of Marechiare and the drama of Non  t’amo piu. MacNeil possesses a rich mezzo-soprano voice and a versatile dramatic style, which she tailored to each song: light for the Tosti songs and Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana, dark for Respighi’s epic Il tramonto.

Respighi’s remarkable piece hovers in the back pages of repertoire both in its original version with string quartet and in an orchestrated transcription. The string quartet version in the hands of this group of musicians was a fascinating artifact brought to vivid life.

Il tramonto (The Sunset) is the composer’s response to an unearthly poem by Shelley. From the gripping first chord struck by the string quartet to the long, dwindling but hopeful instrumental coda, the tragic poem about death, love and mystical aspiration is illustrated and enhanced by the flowing music of the composer. The vocal line is one with the quartet and here MacNeil’s drama and color rose to the occasion. The instrumentalists, especially the viola and cello, were also dramatic and rich-toned throughout. This was a performance to remember.

Also one for the memory banks was the rough-hewn but invigorating attack on Verdi’s unique instrumental masterpiece. This String Quartet from a composer at his peak has so much to offer in its lyricism, drama, rich harmonics and virtuosic demands: the first movement, gripping yet formal; the second with its waltz-like theme casting a spell over all; and the last two movements joined together in escalating speed and dynamism leading to a driving finale, which all the instrumentalists dug into with gusto. The whole piece lasts little more than twenty minutes but the artists managed to draw as much drama from it as a small-scale opera.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. tonight at Gottlieb Concert Hall at Merit School of Music. chicagochambermusic.org

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