Review: Orion Ensemble Offered an Uneven Performance on Wednesday

Orion Ensemble at Montrose Harbor. Photo by Cornelia Babbitt.

The Orion Ensemble opened its 27th season with their usual sort of concert that featured little-heard composers and a rarely heard work by a major composer. The second run-through of this program, which took place on Wednesday at the PianoForte Studios in Chicago’s south loop, was unusual in that the performance quality was less than great at first, but certainly improved by the end.

Following this year’s practice of honoring Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the Orion Ensemble opened with an early string trio by that composer, the Serenade in D-major, op. 8. Before Beethoven forever changed the world of music with string quartets and other instrumental arrangements, he wrote five trios for violin, viola, and cello. This five-movement serenade experiments with musical forms and structures and ends with a reprise of the opening movement, a practice rarely found in Beethoven. While interesting in structure, thematically this music is not all that special, but that’s no matter. It is always nice to hear an off-beat work by this master.

Unfortunately, this mediocre work was given a mediocre performance. Orion’s violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone were joined by guest violist Stephen Boe. Right from the start, the performers did not gel. The main problem was Ramniceanu’s intonation, especially in the violin’s upper registers. She also seemed to struggle with fingering in some of the high runs toward the beginning of the work and in other places. While Stone and Boe were better in tune with one another, their playing lacked crispness. The performance sounded better in the slower sections of the third movement and some parts of the variations toward the end, but overall the playing was not very good.

Orion Ensemble with Stephen Boe played Josef Labor’s Quintet. Photo by Ed Ingold.

Following the Beethoven, Orion pianist Diana Schmück introduced the second set of works on the program, Three Pieces by French composer Lili Boulanger, the short-lived younger sister of composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. Written between 1914 and 1918, this moody music explores tonalities and dissonances made popular in France by Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. It suggests great potential for a composer cut down by illness at the age of 24.

Lili Boulanger scored this music for several different arrangements, and the Orion Ensemble offered a different line-up for each piece, starting with Cortege, which Schmück played solo. Consistent with Boulanger’s influences, this piece has a very airy, nuanced feel, and Schmück captured its wafting sense very effectively. Contrast was provided by the second piece, D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening), performed by Orion’s piano trio. Schmück started the piece with an eerie passage, but she was soon joined by Stone on cello. It took on a more ominous feel by the time Ramniceanu’s violin entered. As the work progressed, shifts in intensity added to the suspense. The final piece, D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning), had a jittery feel created by Ramniceanu playing perky melodies while Schmück accompanied with rapid chords. It had the energy and feel of a morning rush hour.

Following intermission, Schmück wonderfully played solo on Alleluia in Form of Toccata, a marvelous piece by American composer Louise Talma from 1947. In keeping with the Baroque toccata tradition, this work has rapid notes and chords that jump all over the keyboard, an energy that Schmück reproduced with a restrained flourish.

As Schmück explained, like Lili Boulanger, Talma was a student of Lili’s older sister, Nadia Boulanger. Schmück has been studying the work of women composers taught by the elder Boulanger. This Monday evening, she and several friends will be discussing and performing live several works by these composers on WFMT, Chicago’s classical music radio station: October 7, 8–10:00 pm.

Orion Ensemble members Diana Schmück, Florentina Ramniceanu, Kathryne Pirtle and Judy Stone. Photo by Devon Cass.

The final work on the program reflected the Orion Ensemble’s practice of researching the repertoire to find music that its unusual lineup of piano trio and clarinet can play. This research has brought to light marvelous music by little remembered composers that had been languishing in obscurity. Josef Labor’s Quintet for piano, clarinet, and strings in D-major, op. 11, is one of these. Labor was a blind Austrian composer who was born in Bohemia but settled in Vienna. The Orion Ensemble was the first to record and release this quintet on Twilight of the Romantics, a 2006 release on Cedille Records that included a clarinet quartet by Walter Rabl, another work written in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

Labor’s quintet shares similarities with the late music of another Viennese composer, Johannes Brahms. Like Brahms’ clarinet sonatas, which were written a little bit earlier, the Labor quintet has a flowing, yet relaxed feel. The Orion Ensemble, joined by Stephen Boe, captured this feel beautifully, which gelled throughout. They were especially effective in the coda toward the end of the opening Allegro, where each musician simultaneously sounded a rising and falling melody that just oozed finesse.

As the work progressed, each player had the opportunity to stand out. Clarinetist Kathryne Pirtle opened the second movement, Allegretto grazioso, with a lovely tune backed by pizzicato on the strings. Later in the movement, Schmück showcased a flowing style, which also appeared at the start of the third movement, Quasi fantasia: Adagio. This third movement included an extended violin solo that Ramniceanu played with warmth and soul. Stone and Boe also contributed with careful interplay. Intonation was not a problem, as the players tuned up after they took the stage.

The Orion Ensemble offers the third and final performance of this program Sunday, October 6, at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., in Evanston, 7:30 pm. $30 adult, $25 seniors, $15 students.

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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.


  1. Thanks for your comment. It was a very interesting program. Wikipedia lists the cause of her death in a curious way, it says “intestinal tuberculosis,” with quotes. Further digging indicates that this condition mimics Crohn’s disease, but it occurred over 100 years ago. Therefore, I removed the specific cause of her death and replaced it with “illness.”

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