Orion Ensemble serves up a diverse array of women composers

Mon Mar 12, 2012 at 12:29 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Orion Ensemble presented a program of music by women composers Sunday night in Evanston.

The Orion Ensemble has a deft touch when it comes to programming.

International Women’s Day was March 8, and the all-female chamber ensemble chose works by four women for its series of concerts this month in Geneva, Evanston and Chicago. But the lively, polished performance Sunday night in at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston revealed much more than a clever programming idea.

Thanks to the women’s movement, over the past 40 years music scholars and performers have unearthed thousands of works composed by women throughout the ages that had been unjustly ignored. With so much music composed by women now available, the Orion’s program, which ranged from pieces from 1840s music by Fanny Mendelssohn and Louise Farrenc to a 2009 work by Chicago-based Stacy Garrop, was as varied and rewarding as any chamber music lover could wish.

Composed of clarinet (Kathryne Pirtle), violin (Florentina Ramniceanu), cello (Judy Stone) and piano (Diana Schmück), the Orion Ensemble explored repertoire with built-in contrasts of color and weight. (The ensemble’s violist, Jennifer Marlas, did not perform on these programs.)

Those contrasts were beautifully exploited in Sunday’s four works: Farrenc’s Trio in E-Flat Major for clarinet, cello and piano, Op. 44, from 1840; Garrop’s Silver Dagger for violin, cello and piano; the Air and Variations for clarinet, violin and piano, a 1957 piece by English composer Phyllis Tate; and Fanny Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio for violin, cello and piano, composed in 1846.

Garrop has been attracting much-deserved attention in recent years, and her Silver Dagger, though short, is a beautifully crafted, haunting piece. Inspired by the mournful American folk ballad popularized in the 1960s by Joan Baez, it combines the tune’s glowing, simple lines with dark, jagged harmonies and raw timbres. The piece opened with a single, ominous chord—the piano sounding raw-edged, the cello and violin austere and harsh. When Ramniceanu’s violin introduced the slow tune, her tone was queasy and grating, an aural evocation of a frightful deed. The interplay of quiet dissonances, sharp-edged phrasing and familiar, lyrical melody was compelling.

Tate’s Air and Variations was lighter in mood, though its harmonies were spiced with 20th-century tang. Pirtle, Ramniceanu and Schmück made the most of its rhapsodic sweep, seamlessly passing the pieces of Tate’s graceful theme among themselves.

In an era when no respectable upper-class lady would consider becoming a professional composer, Fanny Mendelssohn and Louise Farrenc enjoyed the benefits of belonging to artistic families. Louise married Aristide Farrenc, a flutist who was also a well-known music editor and publisher. Both women were well-trained musicians and skilled composers.

Farrenc’s Trio was densely woven, frequently highlighting the high, clear sound of Pirtle’s clarinet against Stone’s dark, smoky cello and Schmück’s full-bodied piano. Harmonies were inventive, especially in the minuetto movement with its jaunty, dancing rhythms. At one point, the mood suddenly became unsettled, as shifting harmonies took the music in unpredictable directions.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Trio, whose full-throated, headlong sweep carried hints of Brahms and Schubert, was gorgeously played. The Orion will celebrate its 20th anniversary next season, and the musicians continue to balance their individual voices impeccably. Schmück tossed off extravagant, high-speed arpeggios with elan, and Ramniceanu and Stone were equally at ease, bringing a luminous glow to the trio’s introspective passages. The three played with a sense of spontaneity that comes only from long years of collaboration.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall. 630-628-9591. orionensemble.org

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