Strings in the spotlight as Rembrandt Chamber Players open 20th season

Mon Oct 26, 2009 at 11:09 am

By Wynne Delacoma

The Rembrandt Chamber Players opened their 20th anniversary season Sunday in Evanston.

It’s very easy to take Chicago’s vibrant classical music scene for granted. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been a fixture in Chicago for nearly 120 years. Lyric Opera of Chicago started fast out of the gate in 1954, capturing a young Maria Callas for its inaugural season.

In more recent years, chamber music fans have had the luxury of being able to choose among dozens of accomplished resident groups including Fulcrum Point, the Chicago Chamber Musicians, the Chicago Ensemble, the Orion Ensemble, the Pacifica Quartet and the Rembrandt Chamber Players. 

But those chamber ensembles are relative newcomers. Locally grown chamber music has only blossomed in Chicago during the past 25 years or so. Until then, the scene was more sparsely populated. The Fine Arts Quartet, founded in the mid-1940s, and the Vermeer Quartet, active from 1969 to 2007, were illustrious ensembles, but for decades they had few local counterparts.

Which makes the 20th anniversary season of the Rembrandt Chamber Players, which opened Sunday afternoon at the Music Institute of Chicago’s concert hall in Evanston, well worth celebrating. From the very beginning, there never was any doubt about the ensemble’s level of artistry. Its core group of musicians—cellist Barbara Haffner, flutist Sandra Morgan, oboist Robert Morgan and keyboard player David Schrader among them—have impressive credentials that include Lyric Opera and Chicago’s Music of the Baroque. The group programmed stimulating concerts and played with passion and verve.

But keeping a small music organization afloat, especially in today’s tight economy, is extremely daunting. The fact that Rembrandt has survived for 20 years and is still performing at a fearsomely high level is a reassuring sign about the health of the local music scene.

Sunday’s concert of works by Saint-Saens, Vivaldi and Dvorak showcased the ensemble’s strengths. Strings were the focal point. Violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, assistant concertmaster of the CSO and a Rembrandt Chamber member, was the fiery soloist in the Autumn and Summer sections of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and the concert concluded with an impassioned performance of Dvorak’s Quintet for bass and strings.

But the afternoon opened with something entirely different, a flashy little extravaganza by Saint-Saens, the Caprice on Russian and Danish Airs for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano. In engaging introductory remarks, clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, also a member of both the CSO and Rembrandt, called the Caprice an amuse bouche.

The description couldn’t have been more apt. The French composer toured Russia in 1887 and dedicated the work to the Czarina Maria Feodorovna, a Danish princess who had married the Russian Czar. Full of assertive piano flourishes and full-throated, liquid outpourings from the woodwind trio, this was proud, resounding music fit for an imperial court.

Yuan-Qing Yu kept up the momentum as soloist in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. It’s always interesting to hear what CSO members can do when they step into the spotlight as soloists, and Yu played like a born soloist. The acoustics of the Music Institute’s auditorium are lively and resonant, and Yu’s big, expressive sound filled its far corners. Her urgent, headstrong performance was well-matched by Schrader’s needle-sharp, propulsive harpsichord and the tensile drive of the accompanying strings.

The unison precision of the Dvorak quintet—performed by Yu and Kathleen Brauer on violin, violist Yukiko Ogura, Haffner on cello and double bassist Collins Trier—was exhilarating. This is not one of Dvorak’s most popular compositions, but the Rembrandt Players made a persuasive case for this dark-hued but never ponderous work. Tightly woven, full of off-kilter, dancing rhythms, it was both exciting and full of depth.

Posted in Performances

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