Callisto Ensemble closes season in style with folk music, East and West

Tue Apr 06, 2010 at 10:42 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Callisto Ensemble ended their season Monday night at the downtown Stradivari Music and Arts Center with the bracing mix of contemporary and familiar fare that has made the group’s concerts a fine addition to Chicago’s chamber music scene.

Brett Dean has been the featured composer all season and the Australian violist-composer was represented by his first concert work, …some birthday…

Scored for two violas and cello, and completed on his own birthday, the two-movement work retools Happy Birthday, with fleeting fragments of the famous tune peeking out behind the crunched harmonics and angular lines.

Yukiko Ogura

As an early work …some birthday… is not prime Dean, going on a bit too long and less sharply focused than his later efforts, but even here Dean’s ability to write complex music that is taut and compelling is here in embryonic form. If the performance didn’t always convey the humor of the piece, violist Roger Chase and cellist Julian Hersh, joined by Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist Yukiko Ogura, provided an alert, sharply focused performance.

Music of Bright Sheng opened the program. Like many of the Chinese composer’s works, Stream Flows for solo violin, draws on material the composer encountered in Tibet where he spent time performing with a folk ensemble during the Cultural Revolution.

The two-part work opens with a favored song of Sheng’s in which the violin takes the part of a female Chinese folk singer, while the virtuosic finale is based on a whirlwind country dance with a three-note motif.

If not technically immaculate, Robert Waters’ performance put across the folkish essence of this charming if slight work, conveying the yearning lyricism of the opening section. The violinist tackled the emphatic rhythms and fiddle bravura of the finale with daunting intensity, the dry acoustic of the claustrophobic venue adding to the rural feel.

More familiar music with a folk inspiration closed the concert with Dvorak’s String Quintet in E flat, Op. 97. A product of the composer’s American sojourn, written in the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, the music is replete with Dvorak’s folk elements of this period. While people can disagree as to exactly which elements are Indian, African-American or Czech, the melodic, richly crafted result is inimitably and delightfully Dvorak.

Violinists Stefan Hersh and Waters, violists Chase and Ogura and cellist Julian Hersh served up a fiery, richly idiomatic and impassioned performance.The players put across the flowing lyricism as surely as the Scherzo’s Indian-style rhythmic insistence, with the finale thrilling in its dynamism and driving momentum. The performance was at its finest in the Larghetto with the variations vividly characterized and Chase, Ogura and cellist Hersh providing rich, dark textures to the lower lines.

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