Chicago Ensemble offers a generous program with mixed rewards

Thu Mar 24, 2011 at 12:04 am

By Gerald Fisher

For their latest program, the Chicago Ensemble came up with a strange lineup of vocal and instrumental odds and ends. The program was promoted as nine works by five performers, yet the result was at best a mixed blessing. There was some fine music-making at times but a good deal of the longish concert was less than stellar.

The note was set Tuesday evening at Fourth Presbyterian Church by the opening pair of works by Bach and Telemann. In a brief aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 152, the instrumentalists (flute, viola and piano) were fluent but the sound was swallowed by the vast church’s cavernous acoustic, and Stacy Eckert’s mezzo voice seemed heavy for this gem. The Telemann which followed, a trio sonata in G minor for the same instruments, showed the same agility with Gerald Rizzer’s piano crisp and clean, the flute of Susan Levitin alert and Paul Vanderwerf’s viola providing a firm continuo.

Lutoslawski’s Dance Preludes for clarinet and piano dates from 1956. The angular, Bartokian jaunt was thrown off with panache by Elizandro Garcia-Montoya and Rizzer, and proved the refreshing highlight of the program.

Less satisfying was Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. This early masterpiece has been performed in all its woeful glory by the greatest singers of our time, so Stacy Eckert had her work cut out for her. Although she clearly had an intelligent grasp of the emotional map of the work, her voice was not up to the demands of the piece, and here again the acoustics didn’t help.

After an interval, the next pairing began with a snippet of Ravel’s perfumed Shéhérazade in a chamber rendition for mezzo, flute and piano. La flute enchanté proved more suited to the singer’s throaty voice, and likewise, Debussy’s Bilitis for flute and piano received a sensitive performance.

Eckert seemed most at home in music of  Brahms, finding a comfortable niche in the former’s richly scored Op. 91 songs for voice, viola and piano. Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano was diced and reordered for this fine performance with the lively no. 7 serving as a finale.

The evening ended with an unexpected bit of Americana, the Bernstein-inspired Downtown Blues for Uptown Halls by Jack Gottlieb. The title says it all: jazzy riffs for mezzo, clarinet and piano in the Broadway idiom, with Eckert here totally at home.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the University of Chicago’s International House.; 773-889-4206.

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