Review: Orion Ensemble Creates Interesting Aural Fabric With Small Repertoire

Orion Ensemble at Montrose Harbor. Photo by Cornelia Babbitt. The Orion Ensemble continued their 29th season with an enjoyable concert on Wednesday night at PianoForte Studios in the South Loop. Their program was typical for this quartet with an unusual lineup of Kathryne Pirtle on clarinet, Diana Schmück on piano, Florentina Ramniceanu on violin, and Judy Stone on cello. This combination of instruments creates an interesting aural fabric, but the repertoire is quite small. Finding music requires research and, in many cases, direct commissions. Given this, whatever they choose is always interesting. On Wednesday Orion Ensemble turned to a quartet by mid-20th century German composer Paul Hindemith. Orion concerts use other instrument groupings that often perform lesser-known works by mainstream composers. Wednesday’s concert started with a rarely heard early work by the teenaged Franz Schubert, String Trio in B-Flat major, D. 471. Orion violinist Ramniceanu and cellist Stone were joined by guest violist Stephen Boe in this sunny, lively work. It’s only one movement in sonata allegro form, but Ramniceanu, Boe, and Stone were able to extract more enjoyment by repeating the second half. Many composers request this repeat in their scores, but few performers honor it, which makes it special when they do. The experience these performers have together shows in the careful balance between the instruments and tightness of their playing. The only downside was an occasional lapse in intonation that affected the way the music gelled when resolving from dissonance to consonance at the end of musical phrases. Next was the Hindemith, the program’s central work. The opening movement flows with interplay between the instruments and syncopation, especially in the piano part, where Diana Schmück offered great adeptness. On clarinet, Kathryne Pirtle gave the right aural and rhythmic contrast, especially in those moments when the clarinet acts in a percussive fashion. Orion Ensemble members Diana Schmück, Florentina Ramniceanu, Kathryne Pirtle, and Judy Stone celebrate. Photo by Devon Cass. Thematically, however, the Hindemith’s first two movements are rather dry, with few opportunities for obvious virtuosity that can keep things interesting. Things perked up in the third movement, a dance with a lot more oomph, and, following a slow movement, a charged finale. While the Hindemith is not my taste, I am always grateful to the Orion Ensemble for presenting music for their unusual ensemble of instruments. The performance was certainly worthy; this music could not have been presented better. The highlight of the evening was Fantasy in g-minor for violin and piano by Florence Price, an African American composer from the middle of the 20th century who made Chicago her home. It is a treat to hear this sadly overlooked composer more often performed of late. This piece gave Ramniceanu and Schmück plenty of opportunities to shine, and they did with virtuosic fire. The concert ended with another wonderful, but rarely performed, early work by Schubert. Orion played this Adagio and Rondo Concertante, D. 487, a few years ago, and it is very much up their alley. In this quartet for piano and strings, piano is the featured instrument, and Diana Schmück offered her typically even and firm playing, with the confident backing of Ramniceanu, Stone, and Boe. While an early work, this Rondo Concertante already demonstrates Schubert’s penchant for lovely melodies and modulating harmonies. Before wrapping up, I must compliment the Orion Ensemble for providing an exceptionally detailed program booklet. It contained expansive composer biographical information that provided more than the usual context to the music. The program also offered a very detailed musical explanation of the works. The Orion Ensemble and Stephen Boe will be repeating this program at the Lake Street Church, 607 Lake St, in Evanston, Sunday, November 14, at 7pm CST. For tickets and more information click here.
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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. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.