Review: Orion Ensemble and Stephen Boe Offer Something French

The Orion Ensemble gave the first of three concerts entitled Parlez-vous français? at the New England Congregational Church in Aurora on Sunday afternoon. As the title suggests the program consisted of French composers—although there was a slight diversion before intermission.   

During the concert, painter Lewis Achenbach created two new watercolor canvases inspired by the performance. This was his latest effort to pair live painting to live music. Afterwards, these and several other of his paintings were auctioned as part of Orion’s Spring Benefit reception. 

The Orion Ensemble is composed of Kathryne Pirtle on clarinet, Florentina Ramniceanu on violin, Diana Schmück on piano, and Judy Stone on cello. As on many occasions, the Orion quartet was joined by violist Stephen Boe, who regularly appears with them.

Opening the concert was Ramniceanu and Schmück playing César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A-major, CFF123. Unlike most violin sonatas, this work does not dazzle with a lot of electrifying movement on the violin’s fingerboard. Instead, it requires careful playing, with lots of elan and finesse, which Ramniceanu displayed beautifully. When called for rapid notes on the fingerboard, she delivered that, too. In contrast, the piano has a lot more fluidity, and Schmück played it like a free-flowing river. Together they sounded great.

Up next was the Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano by Jean Françaix, a 20th century composer whose music can be very lively and jovial. These feelings come out many times during this Trio’s five movements, both rhythmically and melodically. Françaix also drifts nicely between atonal and tonal sounds to create deep harmonies during fun and frolic.

Orion Ensemble With Stephen Boe. Photo by Ed Ingold.

Playing the trio was Schmück, Pirtle, and Boe, who accomplished the rare feat of sounding like a single instrument. Their ensemble interaction was so tight and precise, a true aural palette emerged when they played together. Françaix created many opportunities for the players to pass melodies back and forth. The melodic interactions between Pirtle and Boe were very especially tight.

Before intermission, we were treated to a performance by Black Pearl, a young ensemble that Kathryne Pirtle coaches. This string trio consists of the sisters Sofia Radovic on violin, Gabriela Radovic on viola, and Aleksandra Radovic on cello.

Black Pearl offered a break from the French-themed afternoon by performed the opening movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's String Trio in c-minor, Op. 9, No. 3. Notwithstanding the marvelousness of this particular piece of music, it was nice to hear a very talented up-and-coming young group. Kudos to the Orion Ensemble for sharing their learning with the next generation of talent.

Following intermission, French sounds returned with Stephen Boe performing Henri Vieuxtemps’ Capriccio in c-minor, Hommage à Paganini for solo viola, Op. 55. This Capricco is a beautiful funeral lament requiring exquisite playing and careful multiple stops, Boe gave this short piece everything it needed, and then some.

The only sag in the afternoon’s performance was the Piano Quartet in c-minor by Gabriel Fauré, Op. 15. For this work, Ramniceanu, Schmück, and Stone were joined by Boe. Unfortunately, the gel that prevailed earlier in the afternoon did not last to the end. While the intonation was generally good for this wonderful work, the playing was not sharp and crisp. It just lacked some verve. While not the best way to end the performance, it was still a very enjoyable afternoon.

Orion Ensemble repeats this program tonight at PianoForte Studios in the South Loop and this Sunday, April 14, at Nichols Hall in Evanston. Tonight’s concert features a different young ensemble, the Windy City Winds, which includes Destina Sarussi on flute, Sonali Marion on oboe, Davin Lee on clarinet, Elyse Schlesinger on horn, and Fabrizio Milcent on bassoon. They will be performing György Ligeti's Sechs Bagatellen für Bläserquintett. For 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.