Chicago Ensemble makes up a snow day with enjoyably varied program

Mon Mar 09, 2015 at 11:18 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Gilad Cohen's "Ten Variations" was performed by the Chicago Ensemble Sunday in Hyde Park.
Gilad Cohen’s “Ten Variations” was performed by the Chicago Ensemble Sunday in Hyde Park.

Chicago’s weather can disrupt the best laid plans of mice and men, and scheduling concerts is no exception. The concert given by the Chicago Ensemble Sunday evening at the International House on the campus of the University of Chicago was originally scheduled for last month, until snow intervened.

The concert opened with Ricardo Castañeda playing Telemann’s Oboe Concerto in E Minor, TWV 51e. In something of a novelty, the continuo part was played on the piano by the ensemble’s artistic director, Gerald Rizzer, and the accompaniment for string orchestra played by a string quartet consisting of violinists Mathias Tacke and Rika Seko, violist Rose Armbrust Griffin, and cellist Rebecca Zimmerman.

In this age of historical authenticity with regards to Baroque music—in which everything has to be just as it was in the 18th century—there is something special about reviving the 19th-century practice of rearranging a piece such as this concerto for chamber forces, as if it were being played among friends in a salon.

The air of the salon permeated the Chicago Ensemble’s performance: their approach was straightforward (minimal ornamentation or dynamic contrast) and relaxed (brisk tempi for the slow movements, moderate tempi for the fast movements). They performed with genuine chamber-like byplay—especially in the first movement, in which a recurring motive passes among the different strings. The only liability was that with the lid up, the piano’s continuo part tended to swamp the other instruments.

The Telemann was followed by Castañeda and Rizzer in the Oboe Sonata of Henri Dutilleux, a much underprogrammed composer whom it was nice to see featured. Unfortunately, the performance was the least idiomatic of the evening with rhythmically stiff and dynamically constricted playing. The Scherzo needed greater bite. And in the many canonic exchanges in the outer movements, each player sounded locked into his own part, rather than in conversation with the other.

The rest of the evening went very well. The first half closed with one of the winning pieces from the Chicago Ensemble’s “Discover America” competition for new chamber works: the Ten Variations for oboe, string quartet, and piano by Gilad Cohen, a young composer whose February visit to the University was supposed to coincide with the original performance.

As Rizzer explained in his introductory remarks, this is not a standard set of variations in which a theme is clearly presented at the beginning and is subsequently manipulated; rather, it is a piece in which an initially indiscernible theme gradually coalesces out of fragments that emerge through the variational process.

The variations rely a great deal on timbral effects, of kinds that listeners of contemporary music are much accustomed to: snap pizzicatos, col legno (playing the strings with the wood of the bow), running one’s fingers across the piano strings, etc. Most of the variations are anchored by a syncopated pulse that often juxtaposes these timbres. Therefore, full commitment from the performers is required to stop the piece from sounding like a resumé of effects.

That commitment is exactly what the Chicago Ensemble gave the piece. Each gesture popped out of the mix. And the musicians carefully mapped out their dynamics over the course of the piece, so that it built to a commanding conclusion.

The concert closed with a very strong performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Opus 81. Zimmerman set the melancholic mood perfectly with her opening solo, and Tacke beautifully highlighted that melody’s main harmonic twist (an unexpected Neapolitan chord) when he took it up later in the exposition. All the players ratcheted up the tension nicely in the movement’s development.

The second-movement Dumka featured the finest playing of the night. Rizzer varied his tone in different shades of delicacy throughout. Griffin seized her moment to shine with her tender phrasing of the main melody. And Tacke and Seko played off each other with great back-and-forth in the major-key second section of the movement.

After a bracing scherzo, the players capped off the evening with a sprightly performance of the finale, the highlight of which was a particularly vigorous account of the development’s fugato.

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