Orion Ensemble delivers energetic concert of chamber rarities
The Orion Ensemble has done salutary work promoting the music of women and contemporary composers over its near quarter-century of activity.
Wednesday night’s concert at PianoForte Studios offered some of both, with two works by a still-neglected female composer and a reprise of an Orion commission from 2001.
The English composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) had an interesting if difficult life. After a promising youth as a viola prodigy, she left her conservatory studies due to lack of funds, later emigrating to the U.S. where she had to work as a nanny to pay her bills. Nearly all of Clarke’s output is for small forces–chamber works and songs for solo voice or chorus.
Her Piano Trio, written in 1921, is one of Clarke’s best-known works, hailing, like most of her music, from her prolific early years. Clarke’s Trio is melodic, skillfully varied and crafted with individuality and a kind of rough-edged Romantic drive.
The Orion musicians–violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, cellist Judy Stone and pianist Diana Schmück–brought out the brooding lyricism and restless agitation of the opening movement. The central Andante provides contrast with a pastoral theme for strings against a cascading piano part; the music grows more ardent and impassioned, and was given a searching performance by all.
Clarke’s final movement has its herky-jerky moments and some awkward transitions yet the intense and committed performance provided strong advocacy for this music.
Clarke wrote a good deal of music for her own instrument including the Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola. Though a less ambitious work than the Trio, the work feels more consistently crafted. The rich tone of Orion clarinetist Kathryn Pirtle blended gratefully with the lean timbre of regular guest violist Stephen Boe. The duo conveyed the pensive expression of the opening section as surely as the playful energy of the Allegro and long, melancholy lines of the concluding Pastorale.
To their credit, the rest of Orion’s program was equally venturesome, avoiding the usual repertorial suspects.
The evening began with Gustav Mahler’s movement from an uncompleted Piano Quartet. The mature composer would, of course, concentrate on writing vast symphonies for large forces, which makes this long-lost student fragment from the 16-year-old Mahler a fascinating outlier.
The Orion members dug into the surging, impassioned music with great fervor, which proved a bit overpowering at times in the intimate room. Yet the ripely Romantic approach suited the chromatic emotionalism of the music and made a tantalizing example of what might have been, had the mature Mahler elected to compose for chamber forces.
The program closed with music by Robert Kritz. The Illinois native gave up his early musical ambitions for a successful career in business, later returning to writing music after his retirement. Kritz has since penned several works for Orion, including his quintet Connections heard Wednesday.
The title of the three-section work expresses a quality Kritz believes is essential, to make rewarding connections with people in music as well as life. Orion’s performance surely made that social quality manifest with all five musicians putting across the elliptical Gallic lines, yearning lyricism and driving syncopations with joyful dedication. Pianist Schmück and clarinetist Pirtle were especially superb, throwing off the ragtime and jazz-inflected accents with high-stepping panache.
The 91-year-old composer and members of his family were on hand to share in the applause with the Orion musicians.
The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston. orionensemble.org; 630-628-9591.
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