Rembrandt Chamber Players open with a bracing mix of past and present

Tue Oct 02, 2012 at 11:11 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Schubert’s String Quintet in C major was the main work of the Rembrandt Chamber Players’ concert Monday night at the Driehaus Museum.

The Rembrandt Chamber Players’ season-opening program was a characteristic one, offering a Romantic cornerstone, a chamber arrangement of a 20th-century standard and a genre-traversing work commissioned by the ensemble.

The concert took place Monday night at the Driehaus Museum on East Erie, a remarkable, painstakingly restored 19th-century gilded age mansion. The concert room on the third floor is a tight rectangle that doesn’t offer much in the way of sightlines for those not seated in the first few rows. The sound is boldly present if on the dry side, yet with the committed performances heard Monday in such an elegant and intimate setting, any logistical quibbles faded once the music began.

Now in their 23rd season, the Rembrandt  Chamber Players have always mined an attractive mix of the modern and traditional and the opening program reflected that venturesome spirit. The evening led off with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite in a deft and clever arrangement by Peter LaBella for seven players. LaBella jettisons three of the eight movements and some of the composer’s resourceful scoring for chamber orchestra is undeniably sacrificed, but it’s surprising how much is retained. The Rembrandt players delivered the Rococo grace as well as the subversive wit and bravura moments, with the hectic rhythmic changes of the finale nimbly assayed. Robert Morgan brought an easy-going charm to his oboe solo in the Serenata.

Eugene Friesen’s Low 5’s was written for the Rembrandt musicians in 1999. The title refers to the scoring for low-voiced string trio (viola and two cellos) as well as the dominant five-beat time signature.

The eclectic background of Friesen, a jazz cellist, is manifest in this concise single movement. Astringent yet accessible, the music has a syncopated drive and bracing energy that was effectively put across by violist Yukiko Ogura and cellists Barbara Haffner and Stefan Kartman.

Schubert’s Quintet in C major was the main work of the evening. What can one say about Schubert’s late masterpiece that hasn’t been said? The music seems to come from another realm with an elevated lyricism and expressive poise that seem to reflect the pain and travails of earthly life while ennobling and transcending them.

The Rembrandt musicians sounded a bit unfocused in the opening pages but quickly found their footing. Anchored by Yuan-Qing Yu’s polished, sweet-toned first violin, the performance conveyed Schubert’s bustling vitality and lyricism, though the moment of existential dread near the end of the first movement could have used greater force and intensity.

So too the Adagio, taken at a flowing tempo, felt a bit surfacey, and would have benefited from more hushed dynamics and tender expression, well played as it was. Yet the F minor middle section made its full jarring impact, put across with dark urgency by all, and the reprise of the opening material was beautifully played, here plumbing the depth of the music with expressive detailing and eloquence.

The Scherzo was aptly vial and energetic, the eerie middle section sounding a deep vein of barely subsumed tragedy. The closing Allegretto was the most effective of all, the players (violinists Yu and Kathleen Brauer, violist Ogura and cellists Haffner and Kartman) bringing out the rustic folk flavor, vigor and heart-easing warmth.

The Rembrandt Chamber Players’ next concert is December 9 at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston. The program will offer Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 2 and 3 and Concerto for Oboe d’amore.

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