Continuing its emphasis on French composers and their milieu, the Civitas Ensemble on Tuesday night teamed up with the Driehaus Museum, which is presently showing an exhibit of commercial art from late 19th century France, L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters. In the Driehaus Museum’s intimate setting, they combined brief explanations of interesting art with great performances of chamber music in a program that both taught and entertained.
These sorts of exercises can seem very contrived; the paired composer and artist might never have actually met or otherwise influenced one another. This particular instance made sense because these French composers most likely and regularly encountered commercial art on the streets of Paris and may have known or interacted with these artists. In a way, this music and art are part of what defined French culture at the turn of the 20th century; pairing them worked on certain levels. It seemed to break down with one composer born in 1970 and another composer, who, although prolific during the same period, lived across the continent in Prague and spent a lot more time in England than he did in France.
While my interest in this particular art form has never been very strong, I am a big fan of French music from the late 19th century, and Tuesday night’s performances were certainly top notch. The Civitas Ensemble, a quartet formed in 2011, features violinist Yuan-Qing Yu and cellist Kenneth Olson, both members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, pianist Winston Choi, and clarinetist J. Lawrie Bloom. In its short existence, it has already made an impact in concert halls and the recording studio.
The concert opened with the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Francis Poulenc, a composer from the first half of the 20th century. This piece is fairly typical of a vibrant yet lyrical style Poulenc uses that co-mingles edgy, atonal tunes with pure consonances that create brief moments of rest. Bloom and Choi clicked from the opening, where zippy runs on the clarinet were contrasted by single chords on the piano. Bloom’s delicate phrasing paired well with Choi’s measured piano background when the opening movement went through a lengthy slow passage.
The Poulenc was preceded by brief remarks from Driehaus Museum curator Catherine Shotick, who presented the posters of Alphonse Mucha. This Czech master of art nouveau relocated to Paris, where he found himself making colorful, detailed, and exquisite posters advertising, among other things, the performances of actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Up next, Choi showed off remarkable dexterity and dynamic range in Scarbo, the third piece from Maurice Ravel’s suite for solo piano Gaspard de la Nuit. Choi strongly played the dramatic flourishes that covered the length of the keyboard, and then delicately juxtaposed rapid passages of one or two notes, which he gave a feel of a smoothly running printing press or assembly line. Paired with Ravel was the familiar work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The whole Civitas Ensemble joined forces for a performance of Adams Variations by French composer Guillaume Connesson. Prior to the performance, Bloom explained that this composition was part of a tribute to minimalist American composer John Adams and that its three-minute length was shorter than the time it took to explain it. As it happened, those three minutes were filled with lots of energy and movement reminiscent of a freight train. On Tuesday night, the quartet swooped right in and ran with it. The posters of Jules Chéret were paired with it, but, aside from the fact that both artist and composer were born in France, the linkages of commercial art from the 1890s to a still-living contemporary composer seemed rather tenuous.
The last work on the program was based on music from the rural countryside. Many composers turned to traditional folk tunes in their work, but nobody did it better than Antonín Dvořák. Several of his longer works have middle movements featuring a Dumka, an Eastern European style characterized by long passages of slow, soulful intensity that are broken up by fast-paced levity and frivolity. His fourth and final Piano Trio, op. 90 in E-minor, a work in six movements composed entirely of the form, has gone down in history as the Dumky Trio.
From the opening measures this was clearly going to be a great performance because Yu’s violin blended marvelously with Olson’s cello, and Choi’s piano playing offered a perfect backdrop. The Dumky Trio is also noteworthy for the prominence given to the cello. Olson played with warmth, producing a tone little obstructed by the cello’s raspy timbre. He was especially effective in the slow opening of the second movement. The fifth movement Allegro features rapid, canon-like interplay between the violin and piano. Yu and Choi marvelously echoed one another as the theme bounced back and forth.
Yu and Olson pointed to a passage in the Dumky finale that John Williams lifted for the soundtrack of ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Of course, this is not the only time that this composer’s themes have shown up in Hollywood soundtracks.
The only flaw was a couple of squeaks from Yu’s violin during a rapid run in the second movement. Fortunately this had a minimal impact on the overall affect of the performance. More flawed, however, was the linking of the Czech composer Dvořák with the posters of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, a Swiss-born artist whose folksy approach highlighted institutions from the Montmarte, Paris’ artist colony at the turn of the 20th century. Better would have been to pair Dvořák with Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist featured earlier in the evening. Although Mucha had long sojourns in Paris and America, most of his life was spent in his Bohemian and Moravian homeland.
Flaws notwithstanding, the excellent playing of the Civitas Ensemble and Driehaus Museum’s exhibit made for an enjoyable evening.
The Civitas Ensemble is scheduled to perform the Dumky Trio again in its first Winter Concert, Sunday, January 28, 2018, 2pm, at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston. Also on the program are works by Leoš Janáček and George Enescu. L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters runs through January 7, at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St.