Prokofiev fares best in uneven Orion Ensemble finale

Thu May 16, 2019 at 10:43 am

By Tim Sawyier

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

The Orion Ensemble presented the final program of its 26th season Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios in the South Loop. As the all-female quartet embarks on its second quarter-century of chamber music, their dedication and enthusiasm were as strong as ever, even if the musical results proved more varied.

The concert opened with a rarity: the 1938 Kleines Konzert for clarinet, viola, and piano of Alfred Uhl (1909-1992). In preconcert remarks Orion violinist Florentina Ramniceanu stated that the group had not performed this work in over 20 years, and did not believe any local ensemble had done so in the interim either. The fact that the Viennese Uhl was a  Third Reich collaborator—commanding a French prison camp in Neumarkt from 1940 to 1942—likely hasn’t done his postwar reputation any favors.

Odious personal history apart, the Kleines Konzert is an engaging three-movement opus. Its opening Allegro con brio is driving and modal, though its hints of klezmer seem jarringly out-of-step with the circumstances of its composer’s life. The highlight was an extended quasi-cadenza for clarinet and viola, in which clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle and regular guest violist Stephen Boe demonstrated an impressively wide expressive range.

The central Grave is dark-hued and surging, and the trio—rounded out with pianist Diana Schmück—ably put forth its cinematic qualities. The closing Vivo has a frantic feel, and the three players ably broadcast this manic quality in a vigorous performance.

Uhl’s work was followed by somewhat more familiar fare in the form of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34, with the Uhl players joined by Ramniceanu, Orion cellist Judy Stone, and guest second violinist Mathias Tacke. This was the highlight of the evening, as the sextet gave a stellar account of Prokofiev’s murky score, forceful and agitated where called for, with Pirtle especially leaning into the single movement’s pungent klezmer harmonies.

The Orion Ensemble excels in the kind of repertoire that constituted Wednesday’s first half—uncommon fare that can stand a few rough edges. However, there are few works in the chamber music canon more beloved than Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34.

The Orion plays in multiple venues and it is no doubt a challenge managing the acoustics of their various halls. However, it is a challenge rather than an impossibility, and the performance felt indifferent to the close quarters of PianoForte’s space, with loud dynamics often more ear-splitting than robust.

This lack of calibration was not the most serious debit, however. The opening measures of the Allegro non troppo failed to capture any of the music’s mysterious allure, and the rest of the movement sounded perfunctory. Brahms’ sprawling canvas benefits greatly from a sense of structure and ordering, but it was met with a generalized all-purpose reading that did little justice to the young Brahms’ restless ingenuity.

The Andante—like the rest of the performance—was plagued with pitch discrepancies, which made it impossible to bring any delicacy to its intimate music. Again the expression was insistent and lacked nuance. The Scherzo went best, particularly its emphatic, extroverted portions, though again its more distant phrases were too directly projected. When the ensemble was taut and the pitch centered, the players were capable of producing elevated, searing phrases, but when these technical elements were lacking the shear volume was oppressive.

This continued in the finale as well, which had thrilling moments when the group was firing on all technical cylinders. Unfortunately, the subtleties of Brahms’ score were too often sloughed over in this too-often slapdash performance.

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

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