Orion Ensemble’s lively playing in synch with Hindemith

Thu Nov 07, 2013 at 2:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Music of Paul Hindemith was performed by the Orion Ensemble Wednesday night at Columbia College's Sherwood School.
Music of Paul Hindemith was performed by the Orion Ensemble Wednesday night at Columbia College’s Sherwood School.

A composer who writes such works as a Sonata for Horn Quartet, a Concert Piece for two alto saxophones, and solo sonatas for double-bass, trombone, and tuba is bound to have some of his music get lost in the shuffle.

Such is one of the reasons why Paul Hindemith’s vast output of chamber and instrumental music is heard relatively rarely today. So kudos to the Orion Ensemble for offering two works by the German composer Wednesday night at Columbia College’s Sherwood School.

In addition to the sheer volume of music Hindemith produced, another reason for his neglect is that the composer’s densely contrapuntal style doesn’t exactly charm the ear at first hearing. For detractors, Hindemith’s endorsement of the concept of Gebrauchsmusik— often translated as “utility music, though “useful music” is more accurate—reflects the mechanical note-spinning grayness of Hindemith’s dominant style.

Yet the best of Hindemith’s output refutes that disparagement and the Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano is one of his most engaging works. The fount of restless, dancing melody is beguiling throughout, with songful flights for all four players, and the lovely clarinet theme in the central slow movement proves that Hindemith could indeed write a melody that sticks in the memory. (Composer-pianist Sebastian Huydts’ witty and insightful spoken introduction about Hindemith at Wednesday’s concert was an additional pleasure.)

The terrific performance of the quartet served up by the Orion Ensemble is just the type to make new friends for Hindemith. The opening movement was vital and vigorous, yet scrupulously balanced, bubbling along in robust high spirits.

Kathryne Pirtle’s fluent and communicative clarinet playing was first-class throughout. Her refined and aria-like phrasing in the lovely, long-breathed slow movement proved a highlight, with the glowing coda beautifully rendered. The playing of Pirtle’s colleagues was on the same level with cellist Judy Stone making the most of her solo moments.

There’s nothing dry or ascetic about this music at all, not least the finale with its taut contrasts in mood between the pensive and cheerfully energetic. The full-blooded playing was superb here with Pirtle’s easy bravura, sensitive yet rollicking keyboard work by Diana Schmück and Florentina Ramniceanu throwing off the showy violin moments with panache.

The quartet was preceded by the Duett for viola and cello. Hindemith’s ability to write a piece of music at record speed is exemplified by this concise 1934 work, dashed off literally overnight to fill out a recording. Violist Stephen Boe and cellist Stone plumbed a degree of nuance beneath Hindemith’s emphatic contrapuntal surface, with the Orion cellist handling the high tessitura with aplomb.

More traditional fare framed the Hindemith works.

The Orion Ensemble is presenting all three string trios of Beethoven’s Opus 9 this season and Wednesday brought the first of the set, the Trio in G major.

The shadow of Haydn—Beethoven’s teacher for a very brief time—is apparent in this early work. Yet the young Beethoven’s quirky humor and energy come through confidently, not least in the closing Presto where he steadily applies the accelerator and the music flies off into lightning bursts of virtuosity for the violinist.

The Trio’s Adagio is one of Beethoven’s first slow movements to reach a striking expressive depth. Yet this deeply felt music emerged rather literal Wednesday with dynamics anchored at a steady mezzo-forte and Ramniceanu’s violin solo would have benefited from a more yielding legato.

The other movements came off more gratefully. Ramniceanu, Stone and Boe brought spirited playing to the ricochet interplay of the opening and a sense of piquant charm to the Scherzo. Some passing roughness apart, the finale went with fizzing energy with Ramniceanu providing the requisite brilliance in the bravura violin part.

Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor made a worthy closer to the evening. While the Andante would have benefited from a bit more hushed intimacy in the strings, Schmück’s elegant and sparkling keyboard work led a vital performance.

Wednesday’s concert marked the ensemble’s debut in the South Loop venue. The compact Sherwood School lecture hall is a more spartan setting than the group’s previous digs at Ganz Hall, yet the acoustic is pleasing enough, if on the dry side, while the close quarters provide intimacy and fine sightlines for chamber events.


The Orion members are also involved in mentoring young musicians and the concert included an unexpected bonus from the Ligeia Quartet. The teen musicians (violinists Ursula Steele and Cyril Wang, violist Alaina Rea, and cellist Joshua DeVries) are all members of the Chicago Youth Symphony. Though only playing together as a quartet for two months, they served up a buoyant and impressively polished account of the first movement of Haydn’s String Quartet in G major, Op. 64, no. 4.

The Orion Ensemble’s next program, March 9-16, will feature Beethoven’s Trio in D major, Op. 9, no. 2; Stravinsky’s Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat; and Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos. orionensemble.org

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