Barber’s “Knoxville” the high point in Chicago Ensemble’s Americana survey

Mon Jan 20, 2020 at 9:37 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Gerald Rizzer led the Chicago Ensemble in six works by American composers, including winners of the group’s “Discover America” competition, on Sunday at International House.

It was an all-American start to 2020 for the Chicago Ensemble on Sunday afternoon at the University of Chicago’s International House. Soprano Michelle Areyzaga and clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya joined pianist and artistic director Gerald Rizzer for six works—three quite new and three not so new. The former were all past winners of the ninth iteration of the Chicago Ensemble’s “Discover America” competition.

Rizzer and Garcia-Montoya opened the concert with Leonard Bernstein’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, his first published work. It presents only occasional evidence of the Bernstein to come, mainly reflecting instead the frostier style of Hindemith or Neoclassical-period Stravinsky.

The rollicking, quintuple-time second movement does, however, present opportunities for the performers to generate real heat — opportunities that Garcia-Montoya and Rizzer sadly did not seize upon in their stiff reading.  

Also disappointing in this regard was Garcia-Montoya and Rizzer’s performance of the other rhythmically vibrant composition on the program: Alexander Timofeev’s Phoenix. Although one could feel the syncopated bustle of the piece, the two musicians barely kept together, each too glued to his own part to be communicating well with the other.  

They fared much better in Michael Schelle’s Chords that Rhyme with Your Eyes. Though not a Minimalist composition, per se, the piece is bound together by an ever-present piano ostinato, teetering between two harmonies at a time. While the piano stays put, the clarinet explores the entire range of the instrument.

Garcia-Montoya’s playing let one hear the colors of the clarinet’s different registers, and was particularly fluid in the concluding cadenza. Rizzer’s performance of the piano part was suitably hypnotic and atmospheric.

Areyzaga and Rizzer were paired for two works. The first was Robert S. Cohen’s Parable—a setting of ten haikus by such masters of the form as Basho and Rippo, in translations by Peter Beilenson.

In some ways, Cohen’s songs run quite counter to the haiku aesthetic: rather than being compact and pithy, they stretch the poems through repetition. If the piece ultimately works, it is because Cohen provides a variety of textures and moods. Rizzer successfully captured these in his accompaniments.

The performance was anchored by Areyzaga’s round timbre. She didn’t word-paint much, but was still attentive to the sound and shape of the text. One song from Parable, “Rainy Month,” requires loud, leap-filled singing above intense piano chords. She sang it with security and without strain.

The finest part of the concert was the performance of the most substantial work: Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a lyrical setting of James Agee’s richly evocative description of his Tennessee childhood.

There are two ways to paint childhood: with sentimentality or with simplicity. Areyzaga and Rizzer took the latter approach. She resisted the urge to sound cutesy. She let her natural clarity of diction and expression carry the piece. He played with minimal rubato, and a clean, cantabile touch.  

All three performers joined up for the only time for the program’s closing work: Jack Gottlieb’s Downtown Blues for Uptown Halls. Garcia-Montoya adapted best to the new style, channeling a bit of Benny Goodman in the piece’s jazziest licks. Areyzaga’s timbre is fundamentally too classical-sounding to be convincingly bluesy, but she had fun with the composer’s wry, slang-filled lyrics.

The program will be repeated on Tuesday, January 21st at 7:30 PM at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

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