Joined by two guests, the Orion Ensemble goes to the opera

Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 7:37 am

By Gerald Fisher

The Orion Ensemble performed works of Verdi, Liszt, and von Weber Sunday afternoon in Evanston. Photo: Cornelia Babbitt

In a program titled “A Night at the Opera,” presented Sunday at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, the Orion Ensemble presented polished performances of three quite different pieces, all of which were, at least tangentially, related to opera. Verdi’s String Quartet and Weber’s Clarinet Quintet are by composers of operas and the Liszt work delivers Wagner with characteristic excess.

Verdi’s only chamber music composition has been getting a fair amount of exposure of late and certainly repays repeated hearing. His String Quartet is from the start emotionally charged yet classically structured. The ensemble delivered the foreboding opening theme dramatically before transitioning artfully into a more reassuring and gracious section. This was reworked dynamically into a neat and satisfying dramatic whole.

The second movement Andantino danced seductively but was soon balanced by more melodic material. The themes were clearly delineated by the artists although the performance of this movement felt a bit sluggish and not quite together at times.

The last two dynamic movements fared better and the sections flashed by like scenes in an opera. The third movement’s cello solo was beautifully handled by Judy Stone and the ensemble took the galloping fugue of the last movement at a nice clip.

For this concert two Orion string regulars—violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone— were joined by violinist Stephen Boe and violist Roger Chase. The four seemed to communicate well, though not always at the hypersensitive level of some long-established groups.

The highlight of the afternoon was Diana Schmuck’s performance of the piano transcription by Liszt of the tenor aria “Am Stillen Herd” from Wagner’s Meistersinger. Here is a 10-minute microcosm of Lisztian bravura showcasing one of Wagner’s most tender melodies in a technically demanding cascade of notes.

Schmuck had the full measure of the music and was fully engaged and aware of the piece’s mood swings from dolcissimo to fortississimo. In a brief commentary before her performance she divided the short work into 3 sections with the composer portraying the warm hearth at the opening, the sounds of birds and nature in the middle and finally a passionate love theme. Transitions were subtle but the whole piece emerged as an ornate but sensitive framing of the Wagner aria.

The Clarinet Quintet of Weber has very little to do with opera and is simply a showpiece for the clarinet to display all the tricks and gambols the instrument is capable of.  It is lyrical and virtuosic with no real development or drama. The string artists were joined by Orion clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle and the ensemble played with style and precision, offering a cheerful conclusion to a well-planned concert.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday December 5 at the PianoForte Salon in the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Avenue. orionensemble.org

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