Harpist joins Orion Ensemble for French and English rarities

Thu Dec 03, 2015 at 12:34 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at Piano Forte Studios.

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios.

Fantasy has two primary meanings in music: the first, a quasi-improvisational genre; the second, the quality of magic that can hover over a piece.

On Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios, the Orion Ensemble tried to capture both of these meanings in a concert titled “Harp Fantasy,” for which they were joined by harpist Benjamin Melsky. The program centered on rarely heard 20th-century English and French chamber music.

A last-minute bit of program reshuffling saw the ensemble lead off with John Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano. This piece is a tough sell as an opener. It consists of several sections of luscious, but meandering music, before a jaunty march brings the piece to a conclusion.

Pianist Diana Schmück gave admirably atmospheric support in the opening sections, coaxing a mellifluous and variegated sound from the piano. But clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle sounded like she needed more time to warm up. She phrased with care, but her tone was unsteady, and both players were stiff and lacking energy in the closing march.

Pirtle was in better form with a delightful performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Six Studies in English Folksong, in the composer’s arrangement for clarinet and harp. Here, her breathy sound lent a vocal-like quality to the melodies she spun. She and harpist Melsky fit hand-in-glove in their constant give-and-take, filled with tasteful, barely perceptible rubato that gave the performance life. The performance went from strength to strength, concluding with a melancholic rendition of “The Lady and the Dragoon” and a rhythmically snappy “As I Walked over London Bridge.”  

Violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone joined Melsky for Jacques Ibert’s Trio for violin, cello, and harp. Ibert is a criminally underrated composer, and his trio offered the most purely gorgeous music of the evening.

Ramniceanu and Stone had most of the melodic labor, and they shared their musical material in compatible fashion with crisp rhythms and a certain tonal coolness.

Benjamin Melsky

Benjamin Melsky

But special plaudits must go to Melsky. One thinks of the harp as an instrument used primarily to evoke pictures—misty dreams, medieval vistas, the glitter of a glamorous ball—but rarely subtle shades of feeling. Melsky’s playing belied any perceived limits of his instrument. Even within phrases, individual notes had different colors and sensations, and melodies seemed to break free from their surroundings.  

The Orion Ensemble continued their support of younger musicians by allowing a guest quartet to close the first half. The Quartet Bolero—violinists Lauren Conroy and Vincent Wong, violist Kayla Cabrera, and cellist Amelia Smerz, all from the Chicago Youth Symphony—played the opening movement of Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet. The segue into the distant world of Haydn was a bit jarring. But the young players offered an accomplished performance, full of bold contrasts of dynamics and articulation, and attuned to Haydn’s playful spirit.

The second half opened with Saint-Säens’ Fantasy in A Major for violin and harp, the only piece on the program that borders the standard repertoire. In his prefatory remarks, Melsky suggested that the most magical part of the piece was its fusion of seemingly disparate elements.

But that was what seemed most absent from this performance. Everything cohered, but at the cost of the distinctive character of each theme. Ramniceanu’s playing lacked mystery in the opening, spring in the syncopations of the succeeding section, and insouciance in the lilting 5/4 passages in the central sections. This fantasy needed more fantasy.

As an encore, Melsky played his own arrangement of  Leo Brouwer’s Canción de Cuna. His wistful performance of the simple folksong made a refreshing foil to the luxuriance of the rest of the program.

All was well in the closing piece, Frank Bridge’s Phantasie Trio in C minor for violin, cello, and piano. Its elegiac cast suited all three players’ inclinations perfectly. And in the poetic Andante melody that opens the finale, Ramniceanu and Stone provided their most soulful playing of the night.

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