Orion Ensemble Plays With a Modern Flair

Orion Ensemble celebrates their 24th season, photographed by Devon Cass.
Orion Ensemble celebrates their 24th season, photographed by Devon Cass.

Chicago’s Orion Ensemble continued its Miniatures and Masterworks season at the PianoForte Studios on Wednesday evening with a program of modern and contemporary works tailored to its unusual lineup of clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle, violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, cellist Judy Stone, and pianist Diana Schmück. They were joined by violist Stephen Boe to perform works requiring different instrument combinations. Throughout the evening they exhibited their typical levels of dexterity and precision that only result from playing together for 24 seasons.

While the Orion Ensemble programs music from the entire classical repertoire, it often presents modern and contemporary music by little known or Chicago composers. Wednesday’s program featured music from first half of the 20th century by English violist and composer Rebecca Clarke. Little remembered after she stopped composing, Clarke’s music has been getting more attention over the past 20 years, deservedly so. The two works on the program displayed a firm grasp of compositional structure and flow and a varied style.

The evening ended with Connections, a quintet composed in 2001 by local composer Robert Kritz specifically for the Orion Ensemble, which, at that time, was a quintet with a full-time violist. Kritz, who attended the concert Wednesday night, wrote the piece to highlight the group’s multidimensional talent as individual musicians and as an ensemble.

The concert opened with a very familiar composer, but one who exclusively wrote for large orchestras and choral ensembles. Gustav Mahler’s single movement Piano Quartet in a-minor, a student exercise, is his only chamber piece to survive. It offers a tantalizing hint of what could have emerged had this symphonic and vocal composer continued along the chamber music vein. Pianist Schmück began with quiet chords as violinist Ramniceanu, violist Boe, and cellist Stone took up a somber melody that builds in intensity until a subdued secondary theme emerges. The players worked off one another until, toward the end, Ramniceanu nailed the solo cadendza.

Orion Ensemble Takes a Break at Montrose Harbor. Photo by Cornelia Babbitt
Orion Ensemble takes a break at Montrose Harbor. Photo by Cornelia Babbitt

Schmück, Ramniceanu, and Stone remained onstage for the evening’s first piece by Rebecca Clarke, the Piano Trio from 1921. For an atonal work, this Trio has surprising amounts of consonance, very reminiscent of Claude Debussy. As Schmück noted from the stage, it also has a very romantic feel, starting with loud, vibrant chords on the piano that soon subsume under the strings. Schmück gave this the correct interpretation, starting strong, but giving way to a robust backup role. Ramniceanu and Stone tightly worked off each other during several passages of melodies that moved in contrary directions along the scale. The finale is reminiscent of a baroque fugue or canon, with one instrument playing a melody rapid fire, while the other instruments join in moments later. Careful ensemble playing captured the frequently changing moods of this piece.

After intermission, the second piece by Clarke, Prelude, Allegro, and Pastorale, written 20 years later, showed a very different style from the Trio. Scored for a dark pairing of viola and clarinet, this work brought to the stage Kathryne Pirtle and Stephen Boe. They perfectly captured pensive mood of the Prelude, which is comprised of a plodding series of chords broken up by brief melodies. Pirtle and Boe were especially effective playing close harmonies through several melodic passages. The Allegro sped things up and lightened the mood with a rhythmic, syncopated theme, played at times in diverging counterpoint, while at other times harmonizing simultaneously.

The Pastorale is what really makes this work distinctive. It returns to the slower tempo of the Prelude and creates an ominous mood of a funeral dirge. Pirtle and Boe passionately sounded off one another to create an out of world ether-reality.

Orion Ensemble with Stephen Boe played Kritz Quintet. Photo by Ed Ingold.
Orion Ensemble with Stephen Boe played Kritz Quintet. Photo by Ed Ingold.

All the musicians returned to the stage for a rousing performance of Kritz’s Connections quintet. This three movement work starts with a sharply struck melody that returns in various forms throughout the work. Kritz breaks it down into components, which he explores with different combinations of instruments and tempos.

The opening movement is very feisty with the melody passed amongst the instruments. It would be easy for the clarinet and piano to stand out, but Pirtle and Schmück blended well with the strings to create a uniform aural fabric. The second movement starts out slowly, with Ramniceanu, Boe, Stone, and Pirtle playing quiet chords, while Schmück complimented with short runs. The finale is where it comes together, bringing the feistiness of the opening face to face with the contemplation of the middle movement. The work lyrically moves through styles that verge on jazz and ragtime, through sections where each instrument does its own thing, but ultimately comes back to ensemble unity. The Orion Ensemble was intense and firm on Wednesday night.

Wednesday’s concert was the second of four opportunities to hear this program. The next performance will be at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, Sunday, March 19, 7:30 pm. On the following day, Monday, March 20, the Orion Ensemble will be performing live on WFMT at 8:00 pm. For more information, check out http://www.orionensemble.org/.


Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.