Orion Ensemble celebrates 30 years with a typically venturesome program

Thu Dec 01, 2022 at 10:31 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Orion Ensemble performed Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios. File photo: Edward Ingold

The Orion Ensemble has been performing chamber music together for 30 years. The group was founded in 1992 as a Bartok Contrasts trio of violin, clarinet and piano, with Florentina Ramniceanu, Kathryne Pirtle, and Diana Schmück, respectively. Cellist Judy Stone and violist Jennifer Marlas joined the group three years later. Marlas departed Orion in 2014 and Orion has since continued as a quartet with Stone and the three founding members as the core roster.

In a city and field where there is fierce competition for audiences and resources, this is a remarkable achievement. In addition, navigating the intimate relationships that develop making music together in such close quarters for that long can be an even greater challenge, and the four Orion members have met it all with determination and aplomb. 

At their performance Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios, one felt deep respect and admiration for four women who have spent the better part of a professional lifetime deeply engaged with each other in such a shared project.

Wednesday’s program was the sort of engaging mélange that has typified Orion concerts throughout the years. The evening opened with Johann Andreas Amon’s 1823 Quartet in E-flat Major for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 106, No. 2, with Stephen Boe, Orion’s regular guest violist, rounding out the ensemble. 

Amon (1763-1825) was an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven, though even in this late work his aesthetic seems to look more back to the 18th century than forward into the 19th.

Genial outer Allegros frame an operatic central Adagio in a score that is an inviting clarinet showcase, if not quite an undiscovered masterpiece. Pirtle played with sweet tone and solid technique, but this is the kind of music that needs more help than it received in a performance that often felt literal and with moments of unsettled pitch.

Jackson Berkey was one of the co-founders of Mannheim Steamroller (with Chip Davis), and several Orion members developed relationships with him playing with his brainchild over the years. Wednesday they offered an arrangement of his 1994 work Earth Songs, originally written for Berkey’s vocalist wife Almeda, but retooled specifically for the Orion Ensemble.

The opening “Evening” captured a mood of nocturnal brooding, and the ensuing “Blindgarten” had a reflective, melancholy air. Schmück gave dynamic treatment to the swirling figuration of “Autumn Brilliance,” though it seemed like both this movement and the closing “French Mountain Village” suffered somewhat from the absent lyrics, as the specifics of their imagery seemed lost.

Earth Songs was followed by the world premiere of Homage to Emily Dickinson, a short work Berkey penned specifically to celebrate the Orion’s “30 years of beautiful expression in music.” The single movement’s inspiration is Dickinson’s “I Never Saw a Moor” poem, and the score lyrically evokes Dickinson’s singular voice, setting a reflective tone that felt appropriate to the group’s 30th anniversary celebration.

The evening closed with Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60, which received an accomplished account, with Boe again on viola. Schmück was a standout, grounding the performance throughout. The opening Allegro non troppo went with the requisite fire, and all the players brought restrained nobility to the regal second theme. The musicians captured the nervy energy of the Scherzo, with Schmück providing the needed propulsion from below. At times the flowing Andante felt somewhat unorganized, its wandering through-line lost. The Finale recovered though and was played with great urgency, even if Brahms’ peculiar ending failed to come off.

Congratulations to this venerable Chicago group for reaching this milestone and for bringing venturesome chamber repertoire to local audiences for three decades. Long may the Orion Ensemble continue.

The program will be repeated 7 p.m. Sunday at New England Congregational Church in Aurora. orionensemble.org

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