Orion Ensemble leads off with robust, thoughtful program

Tue Oct 13, 2009 at 12:50 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Orion Ensemble performed Sunday evening in Evanston.

Thoughtful programming has been a major strength of Chicago’s Orion Ensemble since its founding 17 years ago. That virtue is clearly on display in the program assembled by the group to open its 2009-10 season of concerts in Geneva, Evanston and Chicago.

A former church auditorium, Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston is an intimate, resonant space, and Orion’s sound was sinewy and robust Sunday night as they dug into works by Martinu, Schubert and the Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. The ensemble—founders Kathryne Pirtle, clarinet; Florentina Ramniceanu, violin, and Diana Schmuck, piano along with violist Jennifer Marlas and cellist Judy Stone—played with the energy of longtime colleagues still excited by the prospect of making music together.

The first two works, Martinu’s Sonatina for clarinet and piano and Arutiunian’s Suite for violin, clarinet and piano, share a restless sensibility. A dark undercurrent runs through both, though they also have their playful moments.

Martinu fled his Czech homeland in the wake of World War II and felt its loss keenly until his death in 1959. Composed in 1957, the Sonatina is full of the spicy harmonies and syncopated rhythms of Czech folk music. In the slow middle movement, Pirtle’s clarinet glided and swooped in a bluesy klezmer-style dance over Schmuck’s heavy, tolling piano. The final movement was a heady race, with Pirtle darting and leaping over Schmuck’s non-stop, swirling piano lines.

The world’s massive weight seemed to press on the players in the opening moments of Arutiunian’s Suite, a work from 1992. Entering first, Schmuck brooded over the steady tread of low octaves. Ramniceanu’s violin picked up their outline, adding another dark voice to the lament. When Pirtle’s clarinet appeared, however, its pure, penetrating opening note floated into the gloom like a redeeming angel.

Moods shifted constantly in the Suite. The third movement, titled “Dialog,” was slow and ardent, a conversation full of longing between violin and clarinet. In the finale, Schmuck’s piano, pumping cheerily away like an accordion in a polka band, set off a fiery dance.

Schubert’s Trio in B-Flat seemed to harness all this restlessness in a grandly scaled yet emotionally vibrant work. Stone’s cello added rich color, bringing a dark, velvety texture to Schubert’s lilting rhythms.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 in the Fazioli Piano Showroom, 410 S. Michigan. www.orionensemble.org; 630-628-9591.

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