Bernstein and Schumann works fare best in Orion Ensemble program

Thu Nov 09, 2017 at 9:59 am

By John Y. Lawrence

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios.
The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios. Photo: Cornelia Babbitt

“Let’s Tango!” was the title of the Orion Ensemble’s Wednesday night concert at PianoForte Studios. Well, there was only one tango on the program, Erling Patrick Horn’s Black Tango.

But, as is often the case with the Orion Ensemble, the other pieces were unjustly forgotten gems, in this case by Dohnanyi, Bernstein, and Schumann.

One could sum up the highs and lows of the concert in one word: rhythm. All of the pieces on the program have at least one movement teeming with tricky syncopations or meter changes. When the ensemble pulled these off with panache, the results were gripping. But when they faltered, the rhythms slumped instead of sparkled.

Orion’s violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone were joined by regular guest violist Stephen Boe for the opening piece: Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. Although it was written in 1902, there is barely a trace of the 20th century in sight in this unabashedly late-Romantic work.

The Scherzo-fugue, the energetic centerpiece of the Serenade, was one of the movements that suffered from rhythmic scrappiness. Without crisper accents to anchor the meter, the movement was a muddle.  

The two slow movements, however, were lovely. The Romanza began with a wistfully phrased solo by Boe. And all three players wrung expression from their solos in the fourth-movement variations.

The finest performance of the evening came from clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle and pianist Diane Schmück in Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata. Though a youthful work, the sonata shows occasional glimmers of the mature Bernstein. One can picture Jerome Robbins-style choreography in one’s mind while listening to the finale.  

The small space of the PianoForte studio was filled to the brim with Pirtle’s resonant tone. And rhythm was on the musicians’ side in this piece, as Schmück brought an athletic litheness to the piano part.  

The first half closed with Horn’s Black Tango, for piano quartet. Imagine Astor Piazzolla with a more Hollywood-ized harmonic palette and some theatrical string techniques thrown in, and you have a good measure of the piece. All four players had evident fun, especially in a repeated section in which the cello plays a walking figure, above which the violin and viola trade glissandi.  

The evening ended with Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, a piece sadly overshadowed by its cousin, the composer’s Piano Quintet in the same key.

Apart from some rhythmic scrambling in the opening of the scherzo and a peculiarly timed transition into its first trio, the performance went well, the slow movement and finale particularly. The former opens with one of the most gorgeous melodies in all of Schumann’s instrumental works. Stone’s sable-toned solo did justice to its dark beauty.

Although many of the finest moments of the evening had been solos, the bustling contrapuntal writing of the finale requires real teamwork from the players to avoid sounding like a jumble. The musicians supplied this exuberant interplay with clarity and flair, providing an invigorating conclusion to a somewhat uneven evening.

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

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment