Chicago Ensemble offers compelling program of American music

Tue Jun 07, 2011 at 11:45 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

“Stairway” by Edward Hopper, 1925.

The Chicago Ensemble may not be one of the better-known chamber groups on the local scene but they deserve to be. Not just for impressive longevity — 34 seasons and counting — but for their enterprising programming and dedication to new music under artistic director, Gerald Rizzer.

One of the Chicago Ensemble’s most laudable initiatives is its “Discover America” series, which presents homegrown chamber repertoire, with an emphasis on music of young composers. That commitment is especially appreciated at a time when so many large institutions seem to have little or no interest in promoting or developing our own musical heritage.

Sunday afternoon brought the seventh installment in the group’s “Discover America” series at the PianoForte Foundation offices in the Fine Arts Building. All four works heard were substantial with two proving especially compelling. Composers Roger Zare and Gregg Kallor were on hand to discuss their music in preconcert conversations.

Kallor’s Exhilaration (2007) is a song cycle set to nine Emily Dickinson poems. Though there is no thematic link or unfolding development as such, these settings are crafted with great skill and varied in expression, sensitively reflecting Dickinson’s elliptical lines.

Exhilaration would likely prove more effective in a tighter form and the composer might consider trimming a song or two to make for a more concise cycle. But these are lovely settings, well laid out for mezzo-soprano and piano. Stacy Eckert’s ample voice was overpowering at fortissimos in the claustrophobic venue, and though one can imagine the songs making an even greater impact with more varied vocal coloring, the soloist provided inspired advocacy with Rizzer offering admirable piano accompaniment.

Roger Zare’s Violin Sonata (2008) was heard in its world premiere on Sunday. The two-movement work takes its subtitle, “Beautiful Savior,” from the concluding section, with variations on the simple hymn tune.

The Energico opening movement leads off with a declamatory violin statement and a languid contrasting theme, segueing into a knottily contrapuntal development. In the extended Lento finale, the moody tune is deconstructed with great skill and ingenuity, starting with a mysterious 12-tone opening amid evocative bass piano chords like distant church bells. The pace quickens and the music turns more aggressive and astringent with some notably spiky piano writing.  The hymn appears in its complete form to quell the strife and then “dissolves back into the ether,” as the composer puts it, at the coda. This is a distinctive and impressive work and Zare’s sonata was given impassioned advocacy by violinist Mathias Tacke and Rizzer.

Alexandra Gardner’s Crows (1998) was inspired by the poetry of Joy Harjo and its evocation of the desert in the American Southwest. Written for clarinet, violin, cello and piano in five movements, Crows begins with mellow sustained notes (“Red Earth”) and moves through Bartokian clusters to an unhinged bravura section, an introspective “Invocation” and jumpy, frenetic finale. Gardner’s work is nicely varied and surely crafted with opportunities for all four players. In full cry Elizandro Garcia-Montoya’s clarinet turned piercingly sharp in the close quarters, but this was on the whole a fine and energetic performance.

The program opened with Scott Wheeler’s Trio No. 2 (1996). Subtitled Camera Dances, the piano trio mixes angular neo-Baroque tropes with a fragmented Stravinskian edge, and received a sturdy rendering by Tacke, Rizzer and cellist Andrew Snow.

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