Orion Ensemble wraps season with varied lineup from Mozart to Gershwin

Thu May 29, 2014 at 2:17 pm

By Adam Dahlgren

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at the PianoForte Studio. Photo: Devon Cass
The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at the PianoForte Studio. Photo: Devon Cass

The Orion Ensemble is closing their season with a program titled “Czech and American Romance,” scored for the group’s unorthodox forces of violin, cello, clarinet, and piano (joined by a guest violist), which provided some unique combinations in a program that spanned from the Classical era to the twentieth century.

Leading off the program Wednesday night at the Pianoforte Studio in the South Loop—a stylish venue that is a chamber musician’s acoustical dream—was Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, no. 3. Neither Czech nor American, the trio is a minor work in the master’s oeuvre but reminiscent of his better-known early string quartets, with a sly allusion to the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 1.

The tone for the ensemble’s performance was set early; the string players’ approach to the piece was quite aggressive, a quality which persisted throughout the performance, making the music seem at times as if it was a matter of life and death. The star of the Beethoven trio was violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, whose intense playing was emblematic of the group’s style. Cellist Judy Stone and guest violist Stephen Boe were content with playing supporting roles, the mark of good team players.

Johann Andreas Amon was born exactly between Mozart and Beethoven. The German composer’s wind writing in his Clarinet Quartet was no doubt influenced by Mozart’s use of the instrument in his chamber pieces, and this piece is truly a special discovery.

Cast in three movements, Amon’s quartet is firmly rooted in the Classical idiom, featuring some lovely but not overly ornate melodies and primarily spotlighting the clarinet, with some nice interplay between clarinet and violin.
The Orion Ensemble’s advocacy was helped in no small part by clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle, a showy virtuoso who shared the same intense approach of her fellows, vigorously attacking the elegant solo passages.

Pirtle was also featured in an arrangement of George Gershwin’s Three Preludes for clarinet and piano. Pirtle and pianist Diana Schmück highlighted the more classical elements, giving somewhat short shrift to the blues and jazz influences of Gershwin’s music. Pirtle’s high-energy solos were technically impressive as well as offering an astonishing display of musical skill.

The concert concluded with the Piano Quartet No. 2, Op. 87, by Dvorák, and here Orion’s rollicking, go-for-broke style was most manifest. After a furiously played opening movement that contained enough excitement to sustain an entire performance, the group provided a restrained and sensitively handled Lento, which was the clear highlight of the night, more than the Schubert-on-steroids Scherzo and energetic finale.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Sunday June 1 at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston. orionensemble.org.

Adam Dahlgren is a Chicago-area native and has written about the local classical music scene since 2012.

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