Civitas Ensemble brings polish and vitality to reshuffled program

Mon May 02, 2016 at 3:44 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Civitas Ensemble performed their final season program Sunday at Gottlieb Hall.
The Civitas Ensemble performed their final season program Sunday at Gottlieb Hall.

The final season concert of  the Civitas Ensemble was supposed to have been a bracing all-American program with a varied menu of works by Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Peter Schickele and Stacy Garrop.

Unfortunately, Civitas violinist and founder Yuan-Qing Yu had to pull out of the concert to recuperate from continuing arm and shoulder injuries, which were exacerbated by a fall in February.

Happily, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s co-assistant concertmaster is on the mend. Yu was there to cheer on her Civitas colleagues Sunday and said she hopes to return to the CSO’s active roster next week.

The program was reshuffled to accommodate the remaining Civitas members in a fiddle-less lineup centered on three clarinet trios. If the mostly standard repertoire was less venturesome on paper, the polish and communicative vitality of the playing provided consistently worthy advocacy.

It’s heartening to see Robert Muczynski’s music getting renewed attention. The Civitas performance of the Chicago-born composer’s Fantasy Trio is the second local outing of the work this season with the Chicago Ensemble presenting the clarinet trio last October.

Cast in four short movements, Muczynski’s trio is engaging and well-crafted in a mercurial style, veering between edgy, motoric energy and a pensive urban lyricism in the vein of Barber and Bernstein. Clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom, cellist Kenneth Olsen, and pianist Winston Choi had the full measure of this score, delivering the jumpy virtuosity of the outer movements as well as the pages of introspective melancholy. Olsen’s playing was especially fine, rendering  the cello theme of the Andante with darkly burnished tone and big-hearted expression.

Mikhail Glinka’s Trio Pathetique is an early work, skillfully written if a bit generic in its mid-19th century sturm und drang. Still, Bloom, Olsen and Choi made an admirable case, bringing a relaxed touch to the melodic themes and bristling dynamism to the surging chromaticism of the final movement. The extremely bright acoustic of the Merit School of Music venue made one wish at times for a more subtly calibrated dynamic range.

The sole duo of the afternoon was Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata, and here too Olsen and Choi proved simpatico partners in this much-played work. Some fleeting pitchy moments apart, the CSO’s assistant principal cello brought a warm, focused tone and romantic sensibility to this music while keeping the drama in an intimate scale. Choi’s pianism was equally superb in the more supportive keyboard role.

The afternoon opened with Beethoven’s Trio in B flat, Op. 11, in its clarinet incarnation. The player were clearly in synch with the playful high spirits of the outer movements with Bloom throwing off the bravura clarinet writing with faultless technique and huge panache. The variations of the final movement were almost cinematic in their vividly characterized contrasts.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Civitas Ensemble brings polish and vitality to reshuffled program”

  1. Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:30 pm by Michael Schnur

    I don’t know who Lawrence Johnson is, but in contrast to his description, I
    found the program interesting, somewhat unusual and very well performed.
    Watching the sensitive interaction of these wonderfully talented musicians
    is one of the highlights of attending these concerts. So well done. Thank
    you, Civitas!

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