Chroma Chamber Orchestra proves golden in debut concert

Mon Oct 03, 2011 at 12:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Elizabeth Futral performed Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” in the Chroma Chamber Orchestra’s debut concert Sunday in Evanston. Photo: Christian Steiner

It’s heartening that even in the current scabrous economy, new music ensembles continue to pop up in Chicagoland. The Haymarket Opera Company debuted last month and Sunday afternoon the Chroma Chamber Orchestra presented its premiere concert in Evanston.

The newly founded 33-member chamber orchestra is the ensemble-in-residence at the Music Institute of Chicago, where artistic director David Crane led Sunday’s concert at Nichols Concert Hall. The roster is impressive: Baird Dodge, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal second violin, serves as concertmaster and the ensemble boasts ten other CSO musicians as well as six members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

With that kind of musical firepower, one expected technically gleaming and virtuosic performances and the Chroma Chamber Orchestra certainly delivered in a varied program featuring two superb solo turns and a world premiere written for the occasion.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite served as a fine calling card with its rhythmic complexities and varied solo opportunities for the orchestra. The music could have smiled more and at times one wanted more supple, less emphatic direction from conductor Crane. Still, this was a lively, high-powered performance.

Perhaps a bit too high-powered. As fine and brilliant a venue as Nichols Concert Hall is, it can be sonically overwhelming due to the very live acoustic, especially with a large ensemble like this. The second half, heard from the upper level, afforded more distance and a better balanced sound.

Following a refined, warmly atmospheric account of Honegger’s Pastorale d’ete, Elizabeth Futral took the stage for Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915.

The popular soprano sang with expressive nuance and pinpoint diction, evoking the yearning nostalgia and gentle heartache of Barber’s sensitive setting of James Agee’s text. Crane and the orchestra provided sensitive support, though the tricky balancing between singer and orchestra was not always skillfully finessed, with the ensemble too often swamping their soloist in the more richly scored sections.

Baird Dodge

After intermission, concertmaster Dodge provided a poetic and evocative account of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. The violin soloist conveyed the ruminative pastoral essence of this uber-English music with its tinge of melancholy, employing a rarefied degree of dynamic detailing. Crane elicited a comparably refined accompaniment, with the hushed final section handled with great sensitivity by the Chroma strings.

The afternoon concluded with the Suite for Chamber Orchestra by Edward Marcus, heard in its world premiere. The composer was on hand to introduce his work, dedicated to Chroma horn player Lisa Taylor, a friend of Marcus and his wife, and offered as a “house-warming gift” for the Chroma ensemble’s first concert.

Such occasional pieces are rarely inspired, but Marcus’s Suite proved wholly delightful — tuneful, neatly varied and smartly scored, well designed to display the Chroma musicians’ considerable chops.

The five-movement work opens with a light-hearted gamboling section (“Playfully” is the marking) leading to a richly lyrical meditation with prominent horn solos, nicely assayed by Oto Carrillo. A bumptious Scherzo follows, leading to a wistful movement with a warm, consoling melody for strings. The Suite is rounded off with a buoyant finale with bravura passages for clarinet and flute, and a whirlwind coda.

Marcus’s Suite is an attractive and engaging work that could well find its way into the chamber orchestra repertoire. Crane and the Chroma musicians provided polished and spirited advocacy, closing their debut concert in winning style.

The ensemble has only two additional concerts planned for this first season. If they can find the financing to stay afloat, the Chroma Chamber Orchestra will prove a welcome addition to Chicago’s music scene.

The Chroma Chamber Orchestra next performs 7:30 p.m. April 1 in a program featuring Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde and Poulenc’s Aubade with Marta Aznavoorian as piano soloist.

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