Chicago Ensemble serves up a varied menu with some rough edges

Mon Mar 11, 2019 at 10:41 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Piano and Wind Quintet of André Caplet (left with Claude Debussy) was performed by The Chicago Ensemble Sunday in Hyde Park.

Last year marked the 40th anniversary season of The Chicago Ensemble. Under the leadership of founder and artistic director Gerald Rizzer, the group is embarking on its fifth decade of chamber music concerts, showing little wear for the years and no signs of slowing down. Weathering the storms of shifting financial and aesthetic circumstances for that long is a feat few small ensembles achieve, and Rizzer and his colleagues deserve enormous kudos for their consistency and perseverance.

Sunday’s concert at the University of Chicago’s International House featured pianist Rizzer joined by four fixtures of the Chicago woodwind scene: flutist Shanna Gutierrez, oboist Ricardo Castañeda, clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya, and bassoonist Ben Roidl-Ward. The young Gutierrez, a founding member of Ensemble Dal Niente, has been replacing founding Chicago Ensemble flutist Susan Levitin, in the kind of changing of the guard inevitable in organizations of such longevity.

The program began with Haydn’s “London” Trio No. 1 in C Major in an arrangement for flute, clarinet, and bassoon. The three players delivered this effervescent amuse with excellent blend and stylish, idiomatic phrasing, all well grounded by Roidl-Ward’s elegantly shaped bass lines.

Following was the most substantial work of the afternoon: the 1899 Quintet for Piano and Winds by André Caplet (1878-1925). A feature of Chicago Ensemble concerts over the decades has been Rizzer’s erudite commentary on his programs, and Sunday was no exception. The scholarly pianist succinctly situated the French composer’s contribution in the context of Wagner’s influence of nineteenth-century French music via César Frank and through the latter’s pupil Ernest Chausson, a cross-pollination that was evident in the Ensemble’s performance.

Things got off to a rocky beginning with Rizzer stopping the players almost immediately after an apparent false start, but the expansive Allegro con brio then flowed eloquently. The unabashedly Romantic movement is by turns noble and transparent, with an abundance of imitative writing, and the performers ably projected these elements.

The ensuing Adagio provides somber contrast to the first movement, with wistful, lamenting wind lines, plaintively rendered on Sunday. The Scherzo felt tentative at a relaxed all-purpose tempo well under the indicated “Très vif,” though one still heard strong resonances with Fauré, particularly the composer’s exactly contemporaneous Pelléas et Mélisande Suite. The Finale never fully gelled and again was missing the indicated “con fuoco,” but even with these debits the performance made a strong case for the revival of this nuanced, unfairly obscure score.

The second half began with Robert Muczynski’s Duos for Flute and Clarinet, Op. 24 (1991). The six aphoristic pieces may not be the most profound music ever penned, but as Rizzer articulated in his preface to them, they are undeniably well crafted and suited to the instruments. The gemlike movements range from the antic to the soporific, and Gutierrez and Garcia-Montoya presented them with fluency and grace.

Unfortunately, the wheels came off with the program’s closing work, Francis Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano of 1926. Like much of the composer’s chamber music, the keyboard part to this work is fiendishly difficult, and on Sunday Rizzer was not up to its technical demands.

Throughout the florid piano writing was approximate at best, harmonies at times jarringly off and difficult figures summarily omitted, even at the practice tempos taken. In the second and third movements, the solo piano introductions went awry within moments. Isolated inaccuracies from Castañeda and Roidl-Ward were understandable and even expected given the keyboard insecurity supporting them, though their joint lyrical playing in the central Andante con moto was particularly lovely. The devoted audience did not seem fazed by the lackluster elements, however, greeting Rizzer and colleagues with warm applause.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

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