Shostakovich Trio provides the highlight in Orion Ensemble program

Thu Mar 14, 2013 at 6:10 pm

By Gerald Fisher

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at the PianoForte Salon. Photo: Cornelia Babbitt

The Orion Ensemble, in an intimate program Wednesday evening, struck a fine discerning balance between the familiar and the challenging, concluding with a strong and committed performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2.

The concert took place in the tiny PianoForte Salon, located high in the Fine Arts building. The venue was a bit too small and unresonant for the first half of the program, which consisted of vocal works performed by soprano Patrice Michaels, a long-time Orion collaborator.

Schubert’s familiar Shepherd on the Rock was the opener and the ambience was not kind to Michaels’ voice, which overwhelmed the space, though the contribution of clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle was fluent and Michaels’ performance conveyed the German text intelligently and musically.

The vocal first half was filled out by the seldom performed Three Vocalises for soprano and clarinet by Vaughan Williams and some rare 18th-century opera arias. The Vaughan Williams piece from 1958, one of his last works, is brief and strange, yet the  the room’s dryness undermined the performance. It was interesting to hear this enigmatic work, however, and the artists deserve praise for including it in their program.

The group of opera arias included a “substitution aria” by Mozart (Vado ma dove? K. 583). The arrangement for violin, cello, clarinet and piano provided quasi-orchestral support to an episodic but sublime piece that could have been lifted from Cosi fan tutte. The other two arias were by obscure contemporaries of Mozart, and Michaels’ well-judged commentary gave just enough context to aid in the enjoyment of these forgettable but charming fragments.

The second half was prefaced by an excerpt from a late Shostakovich vocal work Music from Seven Romances on Verses by Alexander Blok (1967) which prefigured and set the tone for the performance of the trio that followed. The Russian text offered another chance for Michaels to demonstrate her stylistic versatility and facility with languages.

The Shostakovich Piano Trio, dating from 1944, his only mature work in this genre, is bleak and sardonic yet turns surprisingly positive at the end. It provides technical and emotional challenges to the three instrumentalists and all were effectively met by violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, cellist Judy Stone and pianist Diana Schmuck.

The work is imbued with a melancholy that is briefly lifted by an ironic dance-like second movement. The performance captured much of that and the pungent Russian flavor as well.

The third-movement Largo begins with several ominous chords on the piano and is laden with strongly emotional themes, well served by the Orion musicians. This brief section drifts into a dynamically rich palette of jostling elements, folkish and tragic, which culminate in a powerful crescendo coming to an abrupt stop. This is followed by a decompressing fourth movement finished off with chordal solemnity drifting out of the minor into the key of E major for a more hopeful ending.

The artists’ playing was stellar, the committed string work underpinned by the always solid pianism of Schmuck. This was a fully realized reading of one of Shostakovich’s finest chamber works.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. March 17th at Nichols Hall at the Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston.

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