From Beethoven to Buenos Aires, Orion Ensemble brings out the dance element

Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

By Wynne Delacoma

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at Ganz Hall in Chicago.

It was one of those nights for the Orion Ensemble Wednesday at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall.

Violist Jennifer Marlas was ill and a substitute was sitting in for the evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Trio in C Minor, Op. 9, No. 3. Thanks to overly enthusiastic air-conditioning, clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle had to stop and clean out her instrument a few minutes into the first of Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces for clarinet and piano.

But Marlas’ substitute turned out to be Baird Dodge, principal second violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who, as it turns out, plays a mean viola. And once Pirtle’s clarinet warmed up, she and pianist Diana Schmuck settled into a spirited performance of Schumann’s charming Op. 73. Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires rounded out the program.

Dance was the unifying theme for this season-opening program, and the musicians found a good balance between propulsive drive and lilting song in each of the pieces. Composed in 1797, the C Minor Trio is an early work, written when Beethoven was in his late 20s. His signature headstrong, start-and-stop phrasing is clearly evident, but a sense of Classical restraint keeps it from sounding chaotic or abrupt.

Violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, Dodge and cellist Judy Stone played with remarkable cohesion. They attacked unison phrases with precision, and Beethoven’s sudden pauses were startling, repeatedly hurtling us into spaces filled with suspenseful silence. Ganz Hall’s warm acoustics allowed the instruments to sound both resonant and clear. Stone’s cello was a dark, velvety presence in the opening movement, while Ramniceanu’s violin added amiable bounce to the fast-paced finale.

Pirtle and Schmuck, along with Ramniceanu, founded the Orion Ensemble 18 years ago, and in the Schumann pieces for clarinet and piano they played with the easy grace of long-time collaborators. Pirtle’s clarinet had a dusky, throaty tone well-suited to the seamless flow of these brief, romantic pieces. Racing away from each other in swirling phrases, merging for passages of meditative song, they sounded both spontaneous and suave. With its soft-edged arpeggios and plushy tone, Schmuck’s piano responded attentively to Pirtle’s lead.

Written for violin, cello and piano, Piazzolla’s take on the four seasons—full of sudden fury as well as smoky, languorous song—could have used more bite. But the Orion still managed to find the drama in its mercurial shifts. In addition to sudden storms, their performance hinted at an all-too-human fury at the relentless passage of time.

The Orion Ensemble repeats the program 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Music institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

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