Orion String Quartet returns to Mandel Hall with generous program

Sat Feb 27, 2010 at 1:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Orion String Quartet performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.

More than with orchestral concerts or solo recitals, string quartet programs tend to fall into a predictable pattern: a little Mozart or Haydn to start, followed by a shortish 20th-century work, and a late Romantic quartet for the grand finale.

Give credit to the Orion String Quartet for freshening up the usual scenario Friday night at Mandel Hall. The generous program offering a Bach arrangement, a recent work by Leon Kirchner, a Beethoven quartet, and closed with Brahms’ Piano Quintet, with Peter Serkin joining the Orion members.

The evening began on a somber note with violist Steven Tenenbom noting that David Soyer, longtime cellist of the Guarneri String Quartet, had died Thursday, age 87, and the group was dedicating this performance to his memory.

There was no need to insert a valedictory piece since the programmed Contrapunctus I from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue (arr. by Samuel Baron) made an apt elegy, performed with a restrained dignified expression.

The Orion members—-violinists Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violist Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy—- last performed on the University of Chicago series a decade ago, and it was good to have this fine, flexible ensemble back.

Leon Kirchner write his fourth and final string quartet for the Orion Quartet, which premiered it in 2007. The compact String Quartet No. 4 stems from a passing comment by Schoenberg, a Kirchner teacher, who noted that “one can still write a masterpiece in C major.”

While the Fourth Quartet may not be a masterpiece, it certainly packs a lot into a single movement of 12 minutes, and reflects many handprints of Kirchner, who passed away last September. The knotty counterpoint and rugged rhythmic impetus segue into a pensive, introspective section, which seems to look back with mixed feelings at the past, before the opening turbulence returns. The Orion String Quartet, which has recorded all four of Kirchner’s works in the genre, delivered a taut and incisive performance of this compelling music.

The ensemble’s lean, burnished tone is especially well suited to Beethoven, as demonstrated in an inspired performance of the “Harp” Quartet in E flat major, Op.74. Lighter in spirit than many of Beethoven’s middle-period quartets, the work gains its name from the prominent pizzicatos of the first movement.

The Orion members balanced the galant and dramatic aspects with great skill, delivering a Presto of fiery intensity and beautifully textured, dynamically nuanced playing in the Adagio. Daniel Phillips, in the first violin chair for the opening half, provided impassioned advocacy in the virtuosic first-violin part, and the closing variations were vividly characterized, the throwaway coda tossed off with wry understatement.

Peter Serkin

Peter Serkin has been a longtime favorite in the University of Chicago series, and the pianist made an apt partner for the Orion members in Brahms’ Piano Quintet. With Serkin’s strongly projected keyboard work as the fulcrum, this was as good as Brahms playing gets, balancing the drama and lyricism, with swagger to the Scherzo, expressive depth in the Adagio and unbridled bravura to the finale. Todd Phillips, in the first chair, had moments of wayward intonation, but this was overall a thrilling performance of a thrice-familiar work.

Note: The Mandel Hall events have been rather trying this season for all audience members due to unintentional yet persistent disturbances by a few. Such was the case again Friday night, with both keening, high-pitched hearing aids and a noisy arhythmic oxygen respirator proving enormously disruptive to the performances. Concert officials did their best to try to rectify the situation including a fruitless search for the offending hearing-aid wearer before the second half. From the left-front center section, it was the ceaseless irregular respirator noise that proved most maddening, adding an unwonted jazz percussion to the evening.

Yes, people with conditions that require medical equipment should be able to attend musical events, but that right is abrogated when they create a disturbance to other audience members as well as the performers, which clearly was the case, again, on Friday night.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Orion String Quartet returns to Mandel Hall with generous program”

  1. Posted Mar 01, 2010 at 3:18 pm by Shauna Quill

    Dear Mr. Johnson,

    Chicago Presents is so glad you enjoyed the performance by the Orion String Quartet with Peter Serkin. It was a major highlight of our season, and I don’t think anyone in the audience had heard a Brahms Piano Quintet quite like that before!

    I would like to comment on your note at the bottom of an otherwise sparkling review. Chicago Presents is extremely sensitive in its treatment of all audience members. From lobbying the University for better handicapped access to helping patrons to their seats, we do our best to make the concerts accessible for all. As with many classical audiences, ours has patrons with medical issues that require them to wear a hearing aid or to use a respirator. Occasionally these devices have issues that cause them to make noise. I’m sorry you find these issues to be disturbing to the point where you feel these patrons should give up their right to attend our events, but that is absolutely the last thing that Chicago Presents would ever suggest or advocate. As you are a member of the press I am shocked that you would do so. It holds no place in a review, and as you were told at the concert by our senior staff, this issue is being worked on – privately – to respect the wishes and needs of our longtime patrons.

    Shauna Quill
    Executive Director
    The University of Chicago Presents

  2. Posted Mar 03, 2010 at 3:45 pm by anne marcus hamada

    Dear Shauna,
    As a longtime subscriber of the U of C Presents, I am grateful that you answered the
    critic as you did. Regretfully, I had to turn in my tickets for the concert so I didn’t hear the “disturbances”. I agree with you completely that they have no place in a review. Shame on Mr. Johnson. I hope he takes your comments to heart. HIS comments ruined an otherwise lovely review.
    Keep up the good work..I’m already looking forward to next season!

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