As part of it’s 23rd season, “Fantasies and Engagements”, The Chicago-based chamber group “Orion Ensemble” presented “American Landscape” on March 23, 2016 at The PianoForte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Performing three stellar pieces were Orion Core Artists Kathryne Pirtle , clarinet; Florentina Ramniceanu, violin: Judy Stone, cello; and Diana Schmück, piano. Also performing the Poco Adagio-Allegro from Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in E-Flat Major, (Opus 74, “Harp”) were four members of the Chicago Youth Symphony, known as “The Bellimane Quartet”, and including Ben Ellenbogen, violin; Ellen Maloney, Violin; Jane Larson, viola, and Tim Edwards, cello. This lovely work, composed in 1809, is a romantic piece in 4 movements; the guests performed the first movement quite competently and charmed this reviewer with the earnest looks they bestowed upon one another.
Indeed, Orion is known for it’s music education initiative, “Janet’s Stage”, named for the group’s former Chair of it’s Board of Directors, Janet Safanda, a dearly beloved and much-missed friend. For the past three years, Janet’s Stage has reached more than 500 students every year as Orion works with the orchestras at Geneva High School, Chicago High School for the Arts, and The Chicago Youth Symphony, among others, providing truly unique and ongoing coaching and master classes throughout the year. This program is one of many efforts Orion makes in it’s ongoing and highly successful effort to perform an outstanding repertoire of chamber music and reach out to young artists, experienced listeners and novices alike. The acclaimed group performs at the very highest level, and even the tapping of bows on instruments was resonant with experience and depth.
The first piece and the first half of the program, before the intermission, was “Trio in E Minor for Violin, Cello and Piano, (Opus 90, “The Dumky”), composed by Antonin Dvorak in 1891. It is among the composer’s best known works, and the title refers to a classical form used to indicate a brooding and introspective composition with more cheerful sections throughout. The composition features six such episodes and was played by Orion with a weeping and transcendant beauty, interspersed with sprightly episodes. Richly layered, the piece resonated through the studio, dizzyingly heavy, dominant and then lighthearted.
Next on the program was “Earth Voices for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano”, 1994, by Jackson Berkey, an American composer, pianist and singer, who has composed many works for small chamber ensemble. Consisting of four movements, “Evening”, “Blindengarten”, “Autumn Brilliance”and “French Mountain Village”. Although the piece was originally composed as a song cycle, Berkey dedicated a reworked version to the Orion Ensemble, adapting his score “to Orion’s unique instrumentation, giving the singer’s line to the violin”. It has been written of this outstanding composition that Berkey sought to reflect in sound the beauty of nature. The “Earth Voices” were thrilling, the depth of the carinet extremely compelling, the cello and violins calling each other; one yearned for the piano to continue whenever it paused.
Finally, the last piece on the program was “Anecdotes and Reflections for B flat Clarinet, Cello and Piano”, 1989, by Rick Sowash, a writer, musician, composer, or, as he’s been described, “a Renaissance Man”. The piece consists of six movements, "Allegro”, “Moderato”, “ Allegro”, “ Larghetto”, “ Lento”, and “March tempo”, with a four-note motif appearing in every movement. Orion performed the first three and the last. The piece revealed a true and complex emotionality- a tapestry of sound and expression. At times it sounded Russian, at times it resembled Hebrew tunes-the end came too soon!
Orion’s upcoming concert, #4 in this series, called “Musical Enchantments”, should not be missed! The program includes pieces by Dvorak, Amy Beach and Johannes Brahms, and will be presented on three occasions. On May 29, 2016 at 7PM, you can experience Orion at The First Baptist Church of Geneva, Illinois; on June 1, 2016, at 7:30 PM, they’ll be back at PianoForte in Chicago, and on June 5, 2016, at 7:30 PM, you can hear them at Music Institute of Chicago, Nichols Hall, Evanston.
For information and tickets, go to: Orion Ensemble