Chicago Ensemble explores new chamber music in “Discover America”

Sun Nov 25, 2018 at 12:19 pm

By Hannah Edgar

Fabio Massimo Capogrosso’s piano trio, “Un breve racconto notturno” was performed by The Chicago Ensemble Saturday at Pianoforte.

The composer’s life isn’t an easy one. Just ask the 406 composers whose works weren’t selected to be performed on the Chicago Ensemble’s ninth “Discover America” series.

Launched in 1992, “Discover America” began by spotlighting American composers, marking the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival. The competition has since been opened up to composers from outside the U.S. This year the Chicago Ensemble received a record number of submissions from around the world, and selected 24 works to be programmed as part of its 42nd season. (For the mathematically minded, that’s an acceptance rate of about .05 percent.)

But however high the bar for entry, some pieces are only as good as their most committed performance. That maxim was apparent enough during the Chicago Ensemble’s Saturday concert at Pianoforte Studios, featuring violinist Eleanor Bartsch, violist Amy Hess, cellist Andrew Snow and pianist and music director Gerald Rizzer

Rizzer’s pre-performance introduction of John Allemeier’s “4” (2007) as “unsentimental” is arguable, though that’s certainly the interpretation it received. The four-movement piano quartet has some unflattering qualities—the obsessive recycling of motifs sounds less like organic through-lines and more like Allemeier got stuck on dead-end ideas. But it has its moments, with latter movements embracing an early Second Viennese School aesthetic and a powerfully evocative second movement. While technically sound, especially in the thorny motif volleyed around by the strings, the Chicago Ensemble members’ emotionally cool performance didn’t display the quartet’s more redeeming qualities to best advantage.

Serbian composer Vladan Gecin composed Mount Parnassus in 2012 while a student at the University of Belgrade. Though the violin and piano work is plenty dramatic, structurally, Gecin’s youth shows: the piece is mostly ambling, never quite giving the violinist material to sink her teeth into. Though always controlled, here too Bartsch didn’t lean much into the piece’s vivacious, flash-fire moments, leaving the contrasts of Mount Parnassus even less pointed than Gecin likely intended.

Bartsch and Rizzer were joined by Snow for a more enthralling international offering, this time out of Italy: Fabio Massimo Capogrosso’s Un breve racconto notturno (2013). The ghostly atmosphere of the beginning of the work is rendered by wisp-like strings and a piano subtly muted in its lowest octave. The work grows more urgent in its second half, interpolated by a lyric theme. Capogrosso’s voice is clear-eyed and commanding, and the Chicago Ensemble rose to the occasion. Bartsch and Snow blended beautifully in their unison passages; navigating shimmering passages and jackhammer-like chords, Ritter locked in better to his string-playing compatriots than he had in the previous works.

Phantasms coaxed a similarly responsive performance from the Chicago Ensemble musicians. A nicely roving, strings-driven sojourn over an impressionistic piano ostinato, Ari Sussman’s 2016 piano quartet saw some of the most high-energy musicianship of the afternoon, nicely tracing the piece’s general arc from somnolence to rhythmically-driving mania.

After a decidedly mixed program, it was a pleasure to leave Pianoforte with Gilbert Galindo’s Echoes of the Divine (2015) reverberating in the memory. The piano quartet takes the harmonic series as its basis, exploring resonances both sympathetic and artificial: A densely saturated opening chord becomes the foundation of sinuous, expansive solos in all four instruments. Aptly enough, the piece has something of a mystical quality, from the corona-like textures to the string chorale in the piece’s middle.

Of course, these moments only land if the interpreters’ intonation is rock-solid, and the Chicago Ensemble musicians had no problems on that front. When it came her turn to solo, Hess came to the fore with a honeyed, gentle-voiced sound. The exposed ensemble passages for strings were played serenely; in a piano solo whose jazzy strains dissolve into a pointed reiteration of the overtone series, Rizzer ably guided the piece to its conclusion.

“Discover America” continues 4 p.m. February 2, 2019 at PianoForte. The Chicago Ensemble’s next subscription concert of works by Schubert and Schumann is January 13 and 15, 2019.; 773-558-3448.

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