One of Chicago’s longest running chamber music groups will be kicking off its 26th season, The Journey Continues, with three concerts starting this Sunday. The Orion Ensemble is a quartet with Kathryne Pirtle on clarinet, Diana Schmück on piano, Florentina Ramniceanu on violin, and Judy Stone on cello. In every concert of the 2018-19 season, the ensemble will be joined by guest violist Stephen Boe.
The opening concert, Vienna, City of My Dreams, is a typical Orion Ensemble program in that it presents three less frequently performed works by mainstream composers, all of whom were based in Vienna. On the program is a quartet for clarinet and strings by Mozart that was originally written as a sonata for violin and piano, K. 378. In 1799, shortly after Mozart’s death, Johann Anton Andre arranged it for clarinet and string trio, which is the version the ensemble will be playing this weekend.
Also on the opening program is Franz Schubert’s Adagio and Rondo Concertante for solo piano and string trio, one of only two works Schubert wrote for a four-person or larger grouping of piano and strings. It is performed far less frequently than Schubert’s other such work, the Trout Quintet. Next is an early chamber work by Richard Strauss, Piano Quartet in c-minor. Strauss would go on to write several wonderful orchestral tone poems; his piano quartet is a rarely heard treat. The Orion Ensemble will be performing Vienna, City of My Dreams in Evanston, Chicago’s South Loop, and Geneva, Illinois.
The Orion Ensemble has been entertaining Chicago audiences since 1992. With the traditional piano trio joined by a clarinet, it has an unusual instrumental line-up. Once it formed, the ensemble was immediately confronted with the fact that the music repertoire for this arrangement of instruments is very limited. The four members are only rarely together on-stage at once because there simply is not enough diverse material to fill a multi-concert season, much less 26 seasons.
Even so, in a lengthy interview, clarinetist and Executive Director Kathryne Pirtle pointed out that more chamber music has been written for clarinet than any other wind instrument. “We’re very lucky,” she averred. “There is a wealth of all the different instrumentations that includes the clarinet.”
Performing all of it requires contributions from guest performers playing a variety of different instruments, a freedom the Orion Ensemble has embraced. The entire chamber music repertoire is available for their concerts. Many such works include a viola, and the ensemble at times has officially included a violist. Although Stephen Boe will be appearing as a guest artist for each concert this year, he is not an official member of the Ensemble.
Pirtle noted, “We’ve always had clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. And then we would have guests. There are not many pieces that use all four of us. But there are tons of configurations, like piano trio, variations of all of us working on different kinds of repertoire for us. We’ve had several pieces written for us.”
Pirtle was a leading inspiration and founding member of the group. She had been attracted to chamber music in junior high school, when she was a part of a woodwind quintet. She then pursued chamber music with gusto in high school and college, where she was an overachiever in the number of performances she gave. She explained, “As I got older, I really preferred working with strings and piano. The timbre I feel with the strings and clarinet is so marvelous that it resonates with me so strongly to play with strings. I guess I focused on that repertoire with strings and piano, strings and clarinet alone.”
During a stint in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in the mid 1980s, Pirtle formed an earlier version of the Orion Ensemble that included pianist Diana Schmück and colleagues from the Civic. That effort eventually fell apart, and Pirtle found herself the lead clarinetist in the Warner Brothers Orchestra, which included violinist Florentina Ramniceanu as concertmaster. One day, while touring in the Bugs Bunny on Broadway program, Pirtle and Ramniceanu sat next to one another on a Southwest Airlines flight, when they had a pivotal conversation.
Pirtle recalled, “Florentina and I talked on Southwest Airlines. We started talking about chamber, and I told her I would really love to put together a concert with her… So we played a concert together at the DePaul Concert Hall in 1991. That was the first concert of the Orion Ensemble. We added viola and cello.”
For her part, in a separate interview, Florentina Ramniceanu recalled having been performing with the Consortium String Quartet. “We were known for our unique collaboration with Corky Siegel at the time, when he first created chamber blues in the ’90s,” she recalled. “The Consortium String Quartet had dissolved after 7 years because two of the members moved to different states.”
Ramniceanu, who grew up in Romania, remembers that fateful plane ride with Pirtle, who had asked if she had ever played Contrasts, a trio scored for clarinet, violin, and piano by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. When Ramniceanu responded “no,” Pirtle said, “You mean, you’re Romanian and you haven’t played Bartók?” To this, Ramniceanu replied, “Well, I have played a lot of Bartók, but not the clarinet trio.” Pirtle then asked if Ramniceanu would like to perform it with pianist Diana Schmück, who Ramniceanu did not know at the time.
“We put together a program that fall that included several other pieces,” Ramniceanu recalled. “I did the [Romanian composer George] Enescu violin piano sonata, and she [Pirtle] did the Prokofiev violin sonata transcribed for clarinet. And we did the Bartók at the DePaul Concert Hall. It was such a great concert, and we wanted more.”
Ramniceanu recalled how the initial concert opened her eyes to forming a chamber ensemble with strings, piano, and clarinet. “Me as a string player, I would never in a million years have thought to have put together a chamber group with a clarinetist,” she confessed. “It’s just not something you grow up with.” However, she reflected, “from the beginning, we played together so well. … We’re still coming up with new sounds and colors.”
One way they’ve gotten around the limited repertoire is by commissioning new works, although composers have written and dedicated pieces to the Ensemble that were not commissions. “Composers want to write for us,” said Pirtle. “That has happened many times … more often than us giving money for a commission.” She and Ramniceanu pointed to Sebastian Huydts as “having been so generous with our ensemble, he’s written some very incredible works for us over the years,” explained Pirtle.
Born in The Netherlands, but based in Chicago, Huydts has composed several works for the Orion Ensemble, with and without commission compensation. Last season, he wrote a work specifically to celebrate their 25th anniversary season. In January 2018, the Orion Ensemble gave the world premiere of what Pirtle called “a profound piece.”
Another tool they have used is researching little known works by little known composers. “We are blessed to know colleagues who are passionate about research, people who have access to libraries of things that were never published, manuscripts,” explained Ramniceanu. “So we took the time and interest to dig into this—and this was before the internet made things so easy—and sometimes even handwrite things so we can read it. It is something that is worth following up on.”
Ramniceanu pointed to the Orion Ensemble CD Twilight of the Romantics, which features two works from the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries that had never previously been recorded. The first was Walter Rabl’s Quartet in E-flat Major for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, op. 1; the second was Josef Labor’s Quintet in D-Major for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano, Op. 11. She noted that both composers were “contemporaries of Brahms that nobody at the time had heard of, really. And they were so gorgeous.”
“That is in line with our thinking and our philosophy,” reflected Ramniceanu. “It’s a necessity as well, because, given our instrumentation and the limited clarinet repertoire, you kind of have to do it, but you can’t really do it unless you’re passionate about it. We are first and foremost performing musicians, performing artists. We are not researchers. We don’t have that kind of time. … We have to do it in a way that works with our performing schedule.”
Another result of their unique configuration is the performance of interesting programs that can run the chamber music gamut. Orion Ensemble programs occasionally include warhorses of classical chamber music, but they more often feature the lesser known repertoire for clarinet, piano, and strings.
“Our goal is to mix as much variety in our programming as we can,” explained Pirtle. “We still work on pieces that are standards, and then have pieces that maybe not everybody knows, but they’re great pieces. And that of course includes pieces from our time.” She paused to reflect, and continued, “We try to bring pieces to people that would have never chosen to listen to, but they hear it and they enjoy it. I would say our contemporary programming is always based on something that we feel has substance to it. Gone are the days where pieces are played that there’s no heart to them. We tend not to program pieces that we don’t feel our audience will connect to. It’s very helpful to have the creative output that we have to have that kind of breath and depth to it.”
The upcoming Journey Continues season amply displays this. Following the initial Vienna, City of My Dreams concerts next week, The ensemble will be performing Russian Passion in November. Those concerts will include Anton Arensky’s String Quartet in a-minor, a work with the unusual scoring of violin, viola, and two cellos. In addition to Boe, Russian born, Chicago based cellist Ian Maksin will also be performing the Arensky.
Besides playing cello, Maksin is also a composer. Pirtle and Ramniceanu admire his ability to mix musical influences into his work, with Pirtle noting that he has collaborated with Andrea Boccelli, Gloria Estefan, Snoop Dog, and Sting. Russian Passion includes a new Maksin composition inspired by tango nuevo, blues, and eastern European folk music.
Also to be played on the Russian Passion program is a trio for piano, clarinet and cello by Carl Frühling, a German composer straddling the turn of the 20th Century who was born in Lviv, which, at the time of its composition, was part of the Russian Empire but today is in western Ukraine.
In March 2019, the Orion Ensemble will be performing French Musical Treasure, where Pirtle will be playing clarinet on contemporary works by Stacy Garrop and Nancy Van de Vate. The ensemble will also be performing a piano trio by lesser known French composer Cecile Chaminade, who flourished in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The program concludes with an infrequently performed piano quartet by Beethoven, in E-flat major, op. 16. This work was originally a quintet for piano and winds, but Beethoven later re-scored it for a quartet of piano, violin, viola, and cello.
The final concerts in May 2019 feature the only unabashed warhorse to be performed all season. Brahms Finale will end with one of that composer’s most important chamber works, Piano Quintet in f-minor, op. 34. Other works on the program are Kleines Konzert, a trio for viola, clarinet, and piano by Alfred Uhl, and Overture on Hebrew Themes, a sextet for clarinet, string quartet, and piano by Sergei Prokofiev, op. 34.
The 2014-15 season ended in a way that illustrates the programming that the Orion Ensemble brings to the stage, mixing modern and contemporary music with more traditional standards. The first half was memorialized in the video linked below. Performed at the PianoForte Studios on May 27, 2015, the concert opens with a work from the 1950s, Quartetino for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello by Hungarian composer Rezső Kókai. It concludes with a work from 2007, Tapas for violin, viola, and cello, by contemporary composer Marc Mellits. In the performances, members of the Orion Ensemble are joined by violist Stephen Boe. The second half of that concert started with contemporary works by Cuban-born, Jazz saxophonist Paquito Francisco D’Rivera and ended with a warhorse by Johannes Brahms, Piano Quartet no. 2 in A-major, op 26.
While the Orion Ensemble tours regularly, they are based in Chicago. Since its founding, it has always performed each program three times, once downtown, and one each in the western and northern suburbs. This season the Ensemble will perform every concert at the PianoForte Studios in the South Loop and Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. Three of the four concerts will be at Chapelstreet Church in Geneva, Illinois, but the Russian Passion concert will instead be at the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn. There will also be live broadcasts on WFMT, Monday October 1, 2018, and Monday, March 11, 2019, as well as a Fall Benefit concert in St. Charles on Saturday, October 13, 2018. In the past, the Ensemble has also performed in Batavia and Winnetka.
Two of the four members of the Orion Ensemble, Kathryne Pirtle and Judy Stone, were born and raised in Chicago. A third, Diana Schmück, was born in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, but came to Chicago for school and eventually chose to settle here.
“I grew up in Addison,” said Pirtle. “I’ve lived here my whole life, except when I went to college. This is a great city to have as template for everything you want to accomplish as a performing artist. If you’re willing to work hard you can form a career here doing many different things.”
While she loves her work with the Orion Ensemble, Pirtle conceded that “any clarinetist who would be a serious, professional chamber musician would also have an orchestral career in general.” Among her other endeavors, she is also the principal clarinetist in the Lake Forest Symphony Orchestra.
Florentina Ramniceanu is from Bucharest, Romania, where she grew up in chamber music, having a piano trio when she was nine years old. She eventually won a competition for eastern-bloc musicians and was able to study with David Oistrakh in Weimar, East Germany. She moved to Chicago from Rome in the middle of January 1981. Even though the city was in the grips of a horrible winter, she felt right here. “I’m a city girl, born and raised,” she declared, adding, “[I’m] used to crowds, lots of cars, street smart.” She was invited to work with Herbert Berg in New York City, but chose to stay in Chicago.
Several things about Chicago initially attracted her and today keep her here. “This city has such a rich, rich culture, cutting edge art scene, theater scene,” she said. “When I moved here, the Vermeer String Quartet was here, and I loved them. Of course, the symphony, and all that. Geographically the city itself is gorgeous with the lake and the park on the lake. The architecture—coming from Europe, this modern architecture takes my breath away. And it keeps getting better and better. I think the people in Chicago are just nicer, warmer people than other cities.” She loves the neighborhoods and now lives in Lakeview.
Ramniceanu has also explored Chicago’s rich blues and jazz scenes. “I used to be a [classical music] purist,” she conceded, “but as years have gone by, I love great music, especially great blues and great jazz.” Pointing to Ian Maksin, she noted that some of the guest musicians who join the Orion Ensemble reflect their interest in crossing over to other musical forms.
When asked about the steps Orion Ensemble is taking to grow its audience, both Pirtle and Ramniceanu expressed pride in the work they do with student musicians in schools. “We have an educational partnership through schools called Janet’s Stage,” explained Pirtle. “We go to the schools and we coach chamber music for three periods in a high school day. We coach their chamber groups, and we go there six times a year and perform for them, and then we bring those student groups to our stages.”
Ramniceanu was pleased that “we actually touch hundreds, up to a thousand students a year. We work with them year around.” She noted that they do chamber music with students and go to two or three schools throughout the year. “We form chamber groups, we with work them, we bring them to our stages, bring their colleagues, their friends, and their parents to our concerts for free. We are really a major presence for a small group in these schools.” She noted that they “work with Chicago High School for the Arts where we present chamber music concerts and master classes designed for them.”
Outside of schools, Pirtle mentioned that they also coach and work with groups at the Chicago Youth Symphony and the Elgin Symphony. “Those are ways we’re involved in the community and get attention. Our programs and the way we present them have always been accessible.” She paused and reflected, “Could we make them even more accessible? I suppose so, but I don’t feel that’s a big issue.”
When asked about the audience the Orion Ensemble attracts and the aging that seems to be happening to the audience for classical music, Pirtle noted, “The audience that we have has many older people in it. Like every organization, we try lots of ways to bring in new people. We really, literally, just keep putting it out there, and our marketing team helps us to get out the message about our concerts, word of mouth, we use Facebook, although I don’t know that always translates into ticket sales.” She also noted, “We’re on the radio. We place ads on radio and other places to announce what we’re doing.”
Referring to chamber music in general, Pirtle observed, “Chamber music is, by and large, a smaller audience. It’s not the same as putting on an orchestral concert with a big professional chorus, but if you talk to any other group, they’re always trying different ways of marketing. We talk to our audience, we socialize after concerts, we have events.”
Pirtle proudly noted, “Our longevity speaks for itself, and we attract people. I don’t think there’s a magic pill to change what we do, or whether we should. Sometimes you have a big audience, and sometimes you don’t. You literally just keep putting it out.”
Orion Ensemble will be performing Vienna, City of My Dreams, this Sunday, September 23, Music Institute of Chicago Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 3:00 pm; next Wednesday, September 26, PianoForte Studios, 1335 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, 7:30 pm; and the following Sunday, September 30,Chapelstreet Church, 2300 South St., Geneva, IL, 7:00 pm. To purchase tickets, check out this link.