Chicago’s Orion Ensemble concludes its 2015-2016 season with three performances of Musical Enchantments, a trio of works by Brahms, Dvořák, and Beach straddling the turn of the 20th century. It is typical of the varied programs Orion presents, calling for different combinations of the four core members to take the stage. In the very intimate settings of Chicago’s PianoForte Studios in the south loop on Wednesday night, Orion’s core members Kathryne Pirtle, clarinet; Florentina Ramniceanu, violin; Judy Stone, cello; and Diana Schmück, piano, were joined by guests Mathias Tacke, violin, and Stephen Boe, viola. The program will be repeated this Sunday, June 5, at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, 1490 Chicago Ave., at 7:30pm.
The first work was a biggie by Brahms from 1891: Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet in b-minor, Op. 115. Composers often turn to minor keys to express sadness, depression, loneliness, rage, fear, fate, misery and other dark sentiments. In Brahms’ clarinet quintet there’s not much anguish to be had. Rather, the overall moods are of suspense, tension and somber reflection. Whenever hearing this piece I sit back, close my eyes, and allow the moods to seep through, in the hope that the performance doesn’t jar me out of it. Happily, the Orion Ensemble’s Pirtle, Ramniceanu and Stone, joined by Tacke and Boe, gave a satisfying rendition worthy of many minutes of closed-eye bliss, notwithstanding moments where the playing got a little bit coarse.
Brahms creates suspense right at the beginning with a melody that would ordinarily start a piece in a major key. Obscuring a work’s key signature is a well-worn parlor trick often accomplished by adding notes to create confusion. Here Brahms does it with only two notes in a simple major-third chord that quickly dissolves into the relative minor. It creates a feeling of being unmoored and unsettled, leaving a sense of foreboding over what’s going to happen next. This sensation pervades the first and second movements, which contain several passages with the strings softly playing a spooky tremolo.
Pirtle’s clarinet playing was noteworthy throughout, blending well with Ramniceanu’s violin whenever they shared the main melody. Pirtle was especially effective in the third movement. This moderately paced Andantino starts with a hymn-like tune, but quickly breaks into a rambunctious scene that recalls a darkened room, where the strings scamper around like mice, while the clarinet, in a cat-like fashion, trys to catch a morning meal.
Up next up was a lovely work not listed in the program. Prior to the intermission, Pirtle called up to the stage the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Millennium Winds Quintet, a group that the Orion Ensemble mentors. The students at Wednesday’s concert were all 17-year olds from high schools throughout the Chicago area. Flutist Megan Torti, oboist Kayla Bull, clarinetist Anthony Dare, horn player Dominic Davis, and bassoonist Joseph Nutt gave a lively performance of selections from Cambini’s Wind Quintet No. 1 in B-flat major.
Following the intermission was a performance of Dvořák’s Miniatures, Op. 75a, for two violins and viola, a rarely heard work comprising four short pieces. In many respects it was a fascinating display of Orion core member Ramniceanu playing Dvořák’s Czech-inspired melodies with Tacke and Boe playing intricate background. Tacke on second violin was particularly effective rendering a part that is percussive in character. It was also interesting to hear Boe’s viola crossing over Tacke’s violin.
In other respects, I found Miniatures to be rather one dimensional. Except for moments in the second piece Capriccio, where the viola joins in, the first violin plays the main melody throughout. As the excellent program notes explained, the work was originally written for the trio but published as Romantic Pieces for violin and piano, Op. 75, which premiered in 1887. The manuscripts for the original trio version were only discovered in 1938. To my ears Dvořák was wise to suppress the trio. In Romantic Pieces, the first violin part stays largely the same, while the piano plays the parts originally assigned to the second violin and viola, and more. It sounds much better in this format. That said, I always enjoy the opportunity to hear something out of the ordinary, and Wednesday’s performance was memorable.
For the last work on the program Orion pianist Schmück was finally able to participate in a performance of Amy Beach’s Quintet for String Quartet and Piano in f-sharp minor, Op. 67, written in 1905. Schmück was joined onstage by Ramniceanu, Tacke, Boe and Stone in a moving work by a woman considered to be the best female composer ever to be born in America.
The program notes mentioned the inspiration Beach got from Brahms’ quintet for the same combination of instruments, and the references are obvious. For example, the way the initial theme in the opening movement arises primordially to culminate in a dramatic statement played by all instruments together was highly reminiscent of the both Brahms’ piano quintet and the clarinet quintet played earlier in the evening. The slow second movement, Adagio espressivo, is built around a long, sentimental tune bordering on schmaltz—again, very reminiscent of Brahms.
The finale, however, with the varied tempo markings of Allegro agitato—Adagio come prima—Presto (fast and agitated—slow—super fast), was the most interesting and original movement. Beach gave prominence to members of the string quartet, and both Ramniceanu and Boe were spot-on during extended melodic passages. Half-way through, the strings breezed through a stunning fugal episode started by Stone. Things seemed to be winding down as the introduction to the opening movement was recalled, with Ramniceanu, Tacke, and Boe, playing in unison while Schmück provided runs on the keyboard, before it all accelerated to an exciting finish at breakneck speed.
Sunday’s concert in Evanston will be the Orion Ensemble’s last performance of the 2015-2016 season, but the 2016-2017 season promises to be great. Programs include works by Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, John Williams, Françaix, Zemlinksi, Khatchaturian, and others. For more information, check out www.orionensemble.org.