Chicago Ensemble provides eclectic program with some rough edges

Wed Apr 30, 2014 at 1:14 pm

By Dennis Polkow

William Walton's Piano Quartet was performed Tuesday night by the Chicago Ensemble.

William Walton’s Piano Quartet was performed Tuesday night by the Chicago Ensemble.

There is always a domestic quality to Chicago Ensemble concerts, a reminder of the days when chamber music filled homes more than concert halls.

Not only are there foodstuffs to fortify the audience along with the music, but founder and pianist Gerald Rizzer acts as an affable host, offering verbal introductions before each of the pieces.

Tuesday night’s performance in Fourth Presbyterian Church’s Buchanan Hall was typical of the innovative programming we have come to expect from the Chicago Ensemble. Who else would present pieces by Max Reger and William Walton on the same program?

As Rizzer indicated in his remarks, Reger is part of the generation after Brahms and Wagner but unlike say, Mahler or Richard Strauss who followed Wagner, Reger was more steeped in the Brahms lineage. His music was once frequently found on concert programs, but not so much today.

Reger’s Serenade for flute, violin and viola, Op. 141a, comes across as a late Romantic homage to Mozart on steroids. There are also moments of polyphony in these three movements that mirror Reger’s fascination with Bach — he was also an organist and taught in Leipzig — along with touches of Mendelssohn. Violinist Olga Dubossarkaya Kaler and violist Karl Davies performed with a rather robust sound, and flutist Susan Levitin floated on top of the sonority with aplomb.

Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 38, is the composer’s own arrangement of his Septet, Op. 20, written for his doctor. Three winds and four strings have been reduced to clarinet, cello and piano with remarkable economy and clarity and allowed clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya, cellist Andrew Snow and Rizzer a chance for individual expressivity that each seemed to relish. There was a false start before the Minuet and some key notes of the piano’s upper register sounded out of tune, but the Adagio cantabile that preceded it was performed with grace and beauty.

Ronn Yedidia’s Black Snow for flute, clarinet and piano was the winner of the Chicago Ensemble’s first score contest, done in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ expedition to the New World.

Composed in 1987 when Yedidia was still a student at Juilliard, the piece makes use of movements popular at the time, including minimalism and ambient music, but offers an imaginative take on them, particularly being more chromatic and harmonically adventurous than was common in those styles.

Here, too, there was a false start at the beginning of the middle section, but unlike the Beethoven where recovery occurred without a word, there was a complete breakdown in the performance. Rizzer indicated a return to the start of the work before continuing on; the first section was more confidently rendered the second time around.

The Walton Piano Quartet from 1921 reflects Walton’s fascination with Ravel and often comes off as Anglicized Impressionism. Much of the piece is in the Dorian mode, which is used to spin out melodies that are leaning towards the British folk sound that would characterize many of Walton’s later works.

The third movement makes use of the pentatonic scale and was nicely nuanced and restrained. The strings have a chance to sustain lines at the edge of their ordinary range, rendered with sensitivity and skill, before the Dorian mode returns for the finale’s frantic fugue.

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