Orion Ensemble closes season with beloved Brahms, rare Françaix

Thu May 25, 2017 at 10:29 am

By John Y. Lawrence

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios.

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios.

The Orion Ensemble’s final program of the season—performed Wednesday evening at PianoForte Studios—is titled “Wit and Passion.” These two musical virtues were each personified by a different composer: wit by Jean Françaix, whose music occupied the first half, and passion by Johannes Brahms.

It was a joy to see Françaix featured prominently on a program with two works. His music is sadly neglected, although it is unfailingly well-crafted and tuneful, written in a crisp, Neoclassical Poulenc-meets-Prokofiev style.

The two pieces that Orion performed were written 57 years apart—in 1933 and 1990 respectively—but one would little suspect it from the consistency of Françaix’s style. Fast movements are characterized by rhythmically quirky melodies above motoric, chugging accompaniments. Slow movements are graceful, wistful, and unmistakably French.

First up was Françaix’s Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello with regular guest violist Stephen Boe joining ensemble members, violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone.

Ramniceanu’s playing was a bit muddled in the opening bars but she soon warmed up. The Scherzo whirled with requisite abandon. And Stone’s cello part, largely confined to workmanlike bustle for most of the piece, sang with great tenderness when she had the spotlight in the slow movement.

Boe combined with Orion clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle and pianist Diana Schmück for Françaix’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano. This piece has more patches of darkness and mystery than the string trio, and Orion did them justice.

Particularly fine were Boe’s poise throughout the Scherzando movement, and the ebony-dark solo with which Pirtle opened the Largo.

What was missing from both Françaix performances was a more humorous touch in the outer movements, a greater zing to his rhythmic hijinks. But one must be grateful to Orion for taking this forgotten music seriously, even if the playing was a little too serious.

To close the concert the ensemble played Brahms’s beloved Piano Quartet in G minor, with its rollicking gypsy Rondo finale.

Throughout all four movements, the ensemble cultivated a rich, russet Brahmsian sound. Apart from the climax of the finale, their reading was more about elegiac warmth than the out-and-out passion that the program’s title suggests, but was no less apt for that. The Intermezzo felt earthbound by the strings’s rhythmic slackness, even with Schmück’s snappy fingerwork.

The strongest moments of the performance were  those that involved the most give-and-take between the players when they seemed to feed off each other’s phrasing: the conclusion of the first movement, the central section of the slow movement, and the G-major middle section of the finale.

Indeed, most impressive throughout all three pieces was Orion’s sense of coordination. Barely a transition between sections went by without a dollop of rubato, some of it very generously served (especially in the Brahms) but always handled with finesse.

This program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston.  orionensemble.org

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