20th-century works fare best in Orion Ensemble’s mixed season finale

Thu May 28, 2015 at 12:19 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Orion Ensemble performed Sunday night at Nichols Hall in Evanston. Photo: Devon Cass
The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios. Photo: Devon Cass

The Orion Ensemble presented “Celebration,” their final program of the season, at PianoForte Studios Wednesday night. The program featured three charming twentieth-century works from composers of various national backgrounds, and closed with a nineteenth-century warhorse.

Opening the evening was the 1952 Quartettino for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello by Rezsö Kókai, a winsome piece that betrays little of the turbulent times through which the Hungarian composer lived. The opening Sonatina had a distinctly urban feel, with driving string figures and sinuous klezmer-infused lines from clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle. The Scherzino was genteel and amply infused with Hungarian harmonic coloration, while the ensuing Canzonetta and Finaletto dangerously flirted with plagiarism of Bartók’s “An Evening in the Village” from  Hungarian Sketches and “Fast Dance” from the Romanian Folk Dances, respectively. The playing throughout was refined, and made the case that Kókai’s obscurity is perhaps not completely merited.

This was followed by the most successful endeavor of the evening, an impassioned reading of Marc Mellits’ Tapas for violin, viola, and cello (2007). Orion offered all eight of the work’s brief movements, which like the cuisine from which the work takes its name, might better be sampled in performances. The majority of the movements are in an updated minimalist idiom, with hints of bluegrass and jazz that give the music a fresh aspect.

The fifth and sixth movements were particularly effective. The introspective fifth featured Schubertian vacillations between major and minor to which violinist Florentina Ramniceanu was particularly attentive, and the playful sixth divided a catchy pizzicato melodic strain between all three instruments, where cellist Judy Stone’s contributions were especially full-bodied.

Guest percussionist Jonathan Reed, a recent UIC performance graduate, joined Pirtle and Orion pianist Diana Schmück for Marco Rizo’s arrangement for clarinet and piano of Paquito D’Rivera’s Vals Venezolano and Contradanza. The playing from all three was pristine and enthusiastic, but lacked the idiomatic reckless flair and abandon that have made D’Rivera a multiple Latin Grammy winner. Reed’s ad libitum additions were tasteful and never overdone, and Schmück was a sensitive accompanist.

The evening came to a close with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Major, a pillar of the chamber music repertory. Unfortunately, an abundance of technical problems—dubious string intonation and faulty pitch chief among them—detracted from the performance. Soft dynamics sounded anemic and loud ones lacked resonance, begetting a lack of genuine contrast. Even the well executed technical passages somehow sounded muffed. While Orion deserves kudos for taking on such a beast in the first place (especially Schmück for tackling the incredibly demanding piano part), this performance fell below the ensemble’s usual reliable standard.

The Orion Ensemble repeats “Celebration” 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston. orionensemble.org

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