Orion Ensemble returns to its roots for 20th anniversary

Thu Oct 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm

By Dennis Polkow

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at Ganz Hall.

In 1991, clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle and violinist Florentina Ramniceanu were on tour together as part of the Warner Brothers Symphony Orchestra and began talking about chamber music that they love and would enjoy playing together.

One of the first pieces that came to mind was Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano. That fall, along with pianist Diana Schmück, they performed Bartók’s Contrasts at DePaul University. The following year a series of chamber music followed and the Orion Ensemble was born.

Fittingly, Bartók’s trio was the opening work on the season-opening concert of Orion’s 20th anniversary season Wednesday night at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall. Amazingly, all three artists that played the piece 21 years ago are still playing with the group and were on hand to perform it.

The work was conceived by violinist Joseph Szigeti as a two-movement work of seven minutes (one side of a three-and-a-half-minute 78 each) for Benny Goodman — who commissioned and premiered it with Szigeti and Bartók himself as pianist in 1939 under the title Rhapsody for clarinet, violin and piano. Bartók did add a middle movement after that premiere and also changed the title of what by then was a 17-minute work.

Pirtle’s clarinet playing showcased a wide range of nuanced and evocative sounds and Ramniceunu had an organic grasp of the folk-tune rhythms and sonic approaches needed, effectively switching her instrument rather than retune as the score calls for in the final movement. Schmück impressively held everything together and the balances and interplay between the three players was exquisite.  

Chicago composer Sebastian Huydts’ Quintet for clarinet, piano, violin, viola and cello, Op. 30 was an Orion commission from its tenth anniversary season a decade ago and was here receiving a welcome reprise.

As the Bartók, Huydts makes use of folk music in a chamber music setting, in this case Spanish, reflecting the composer’s commute between Chicago and Barcelona, where he often performs.

Pirtle, Ramniceanu, Schmück were joined by cellist Judy Stone and guest violist Stephen Boe. The ensemble formed a tranquil and ambient unit during the piece’s many homogenous sections where one instrument would emerge out of the sonority and decorate it in a chromatic but always tonal manner before handing it off to another instrument.

The finale of the evening was Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47, which was played with nuance and gusto despite the fact that the poignant Andante cantabile, which usually steals the show, was marred by some overplaying and intonation lapses in the upper strings.  

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Sunday, at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church, Geneva, and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Music Institute of Chicago, Evanston. 630-628-9591; orionensemble.org.  

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