Rembrandt Chamber Players offer an Augusta Read Thomas premiere

Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 1:12 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Augusta Read Thomas’s “Pilgrim Soul” received its Chicago premiere Sunday by the Rembrandt Chamber Players. Photo: Michael Lutch

One of many itinerant Chicago-area classical ensembles, the Rembrandt Chamber Players puts on well-balanced, well-played concerts, often with a programming twist thrown in.

For their debut concert at the new Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago Sunday afternoon, the twist was Augusta Read Thomas’s Pilgrim Soul, heard in its Chicago premiere.

The concert began with a little-played Serenade for flute, violin and viola (Op. 25) by the youthful Beethoven. Dating from 1795, the music is a chamber-sized version of the dance music of the period. A lightwight occasional piece, it begins formally with an entrance that gives plenty of scope for flute pyrotechnics as well as a nice workout for the other musicians.

The performance by flutist Sandra Morgan, violinist Kathleen Brauer, and violist Elizabeth Hagen was a bit pallid at first but the blend of the three instruments was finely judged and nicely conveyed by the acoustic of the hall. Things picked up with a bravura Allegro Molto which the artists dug into with gusto. The longer lines of a theme and two variations and a virtuosic turn in the brisk Scherzando came off well with just a hint of the occasional rough spot. The final Allegro Vivace was a stimulating close.

Pilgrim Soul by Read Thomas was written for English horn, played by the ensemble’s oboist, Robert Morgan, and two violins, with Ilana Setapen joining Brauer.

This nine-minute work was commissioned by a Chicago couple and is a real showpiece displaying the whole range of the English horn’s palette. Opening with an almost pastoral slow section, the richness of the instrument was pitted against the two violinists, who played both together and individually in successive blocks of tonality. The music is contrapuntally complex and fluctuated dynamically with the more aggressive violin duo declaiming around the longer, drawn-out lines of the English horn. A brief pause led into a slow but short conclusion. The composer also appeared for a brief talk at the end of the concert.

After intermission the ensemble regrouped as a piano trio (pianist Jeanie Yu, violinist Setapen, and cellist Barbara Haffner), turning in a fine, idiomatic performance of a Dvorak masterpiece, his Dumky Trio.

Rather than a classically constructed trio, this work is more a collection of six sparkling Slavic dances (each in a different key) alternating with slower more dramatic introductory sections. The Dumka is a traditional lament, so there is a dark side to the piece which was immediately on display with the aching long lines of the opening section. The dance movements spring up irrepressibly out of the introspective musings of cello and piano though in the end those same dances come to feel frenetic and a melancholy expression dominates.

All three artists were fully up to the challenges of the piece, with Haffner’s dominant cello always secure, Yu providing clean and alert arpeggios, and Setapen always in the right place tonally.

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