Past, present and future well represented at Rembrandt Chamber Players’ season finale

Thu May 13, 2010 at 3:05 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Rembrandt Chamber Players

For any performing arts group — let alone a chamber music group — to not only be surviving, but genuinely thriving after two decades is a real accomplishment, especially in these trying economic times.

The finale for a 20th anniversary year needs to be something special, and happily, the Rembrandt Chamber Players’ closing program of an extraordinary season did not disappoint.

The  engaging program included a world premiere by a Chicago composer, a beloved chamber music warhorse and performances by high school players that had taken top prizes in the Rembrandt Chamber Players 15th annual High School Chamber Music Competition.

Stacy Garrop

Chicago composer and Roosevelt University professor Stacy Garrop has had many commissions and won several grants and awards. RCP wanted a short series of pieces from her to show the ensemble in its best light, and Garrop decided to write a series of miniatures called Frammenti.

The five “fragments”– titled in numerical sequence and also in Italian — were performed by flutist Sandra Morgan, oboist Robert Morgan, clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, guest violist Yukiko Ogura, cellist Barbara Haffner, bassist Collins Trier and David Schrader on piano. The players were symmetrically configured in two sections with the piano dividing them and performed throughout with considerable flair and polish.

When one thinks of modern miniatures, Anton Webern is the gold standard with a compact density of sound and compression of ideas that are as overwhelming in their busyness as they are broad in their brevity.

And though Garrop’s Frammenti are reminiscent of Webern in their concision — some weighed in at merely a minute, and the longest is no more than two or three minutes making for a total performance time of ten minutes — these are hardly dense pieces, usually exploring no more than a single, rather unadorned idea or two.

Primo, for instance, represents a timbral tug of war between the winds and strings punctuated by pianistic tone clusters while Secondo is played out across an aural canvas of stops and starts as the ensemble fans out chromatically before the viola takes over, giving way to the violin.

Terzo explores the fragility of high harmonics that evaporate into a piccolo cadenza before ensemble glissandi give way to low clarinet and bass in climactic tremolo. Quarto, the most dense and raucous piece of the set, features low unison strings picked up by violin and building in swirling sonority and call-and-response with percussive piano and bass.

By contrast, the set concludes with Quinto, a simple series of slowly moving high-pitched diatonic chords, set up virtually like a glass harmonica, before eventually heading downward for the finale.

The two high school groups that opened the concert were an absolute delight.  Both were made up of members of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and the first prize winner was a string quartet called S*M*A*K that indeed packed quite a wallop when it traversed the minefield that is the middle movement Allegro molto capriccioso of Bartók’s Second String Quartet.  The members brought off this central movement as if it were child’s play, with the poise and confidence of professionals players twice their age.

No less impressive technically even if the repertoire choice was not as compelling was a brass quintet called Da Brass that is also made up of CYSO players that offered a spirited and well-balanced reading of the opening movement of Victor Ewald’s Brass Quintet No. 3.

The grand finale of the evening was the Brahms’ Piano Quartet in c minor, Op. 60, where guest violist Roger Chase joined pianist Jeannie Yu, violinist Yuan-Qing Yu and cellist Barbara Haffner for a sensitive account of one of the crown jewels of the genre.

The three strings played virtually as a unit and newcomer Chase blended in beautifully, particularly in the work’s amazing Andante, where Haffner’s poignant rendition of one of Brahms’ most expressive melodies gave way to Yu’s violin and Chase’s viola for a full trio sonority punctuated with responsive accompaniment by pianist Jeannie Yu.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Sunday May 16 at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston;; 312-360-3145.

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