Orion Ensemble closes season with a timely tribute to Amy Beach

Thu Jun 02, 2016 at 3:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kathryne Pirtle performed Brahms' Clarinet Quintet with Orion Ensemble colleagues Wednesday at PianoForte. File photo.
Kathryne Pirtle performed Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet with Orion Ensemble colleagues Wednesday at PianoForte. File photo.

Despite widespread renewed interest in the music of Amy Beach, the pioneering American composer’s works remain largely terra incognita locally. In her lifetime (1867-1944) the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed both Beach’s “Gaelic” symphony and her Piano Concerto, the latter with the composer as soloist. Her impressive oeuvre includes a Mass in E flat, Violin Sonata and over 150 songs.

Kudos to the Orion Ensemble for getting an early start on the Beach 150th birthday year of 2017 by presenting her Piano Quintet in F sharp minor Wednesday night at PianoForte.

Beach considered herself a concert pianist first rather than a composer and wrote both her concerto and quintet as vehicles for herself to perform. The portly shadow of Brahms looms large in the quintet’s stormy opening movement and the finale is perhaps not quite on the level as the two preceding sections. Still, like most of her music, Beach’s quintet is surely crafted and consistently engaging with an indelible melodic richness.

This program marks the Orion Ensemble’s first performances of Beach’s Piano Quintet, yet one would never know it from the vital and impassioned performance delivered Wednesday night. Orion members pianist Diana Schmück, violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone were joined by violinist Mathias Tacke and violist Stephen Boe.

Beach’s keyboard part is formidable, yet Schmück handled all of the myriad challenges with consistent polish and fizzing virtuosity. The Adagio is the heart of the quintet, and the beguiling main theme was floated with refined feeling by Ramniceanu, with Stone’s cello reprise near the end of the movement just as affecting.

The entire ensemble played with notable fire and commitment, and Beach’s quintet received the most enthusiastic ovation of the evening, no mean feat when sharing a program with Brahms and Dvorak.

Brahms’ evergreen Clarinet Quintet opened the concert. Kathryne Pirtle’s personality-plus musicianship provided superb advocacy for Brahms’ late score throughout, Orion’s clarinetist playing with woody tone and great panache. Set against the rather subdued and fitfully cautious string ensemble, Brahms’ quintet had even more of a concertante feel than usual.

At times one would have liked a wider range of dynamics, particularly at the quiet end, which can, admittedly, be a challenge in PianoForte’s intimate, very live room. Also the gypsy interlude of the Adagio felt too easy-going and failed to provide the contrast and edgy swagger Brahms intended.

Still, led by Pirtle’s vivid playing this was a largely successful rendering with the performance growing more cohesive by the full ensemble as it unfolded.

The evening’s offbeat centerpiece, Dvorak’s Miniatures for two violins and viola, made a nice divertissement. Better known as Romantic Pieces in the revised version for violin and piano, these four concise nuggets are fully characteristic of the Czech composer’s melodic charm, even in small things. Violinist Florentina Ramniceanu brought lyric warmth to the lovely theme of the Cavatina and, along with Tacke and Boe, skillfully balanced the graceful lyricism and rustic vigor.

As part of their admirable outreach, the Orion Ensemble mentors members of the Chicago Youth Symphony, as well as young musicians from a variety of local schools.

As a bonus Wednesday, the Millennium Winds, a quintet of Youth Symphony members, offered two movements from Giuseppe Maria Cambini’s Wind Quintet No. 1 in B-flat Major. The performance was fluent and lively with some especially dazzling playing by clarinetist Anthony Dare, a senior at Main South High School in Park Ridge.

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

The Orion Ensemble opens its 2016-17 season September 18 with music of Mozart, Zemlinsky and James Wintle. orionensemble.org.

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