Chicago Ensemble charms at I-House

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Ensemble, now in its 37th season, is clearly one of Chicago’s most durable music performing groups. Artistic director Gerald Rizzer has consistently proven that he can craft engaging programs that combine well-known works with music off the beaten path. Sometimes the lesser-known pieces are by the most famous composers, sometimes they are by newcomers you’ve never heard of, and sometimes they are pieces by accomplished composers who never became household names.

The Chicago Ensemble doesn’t represent a fixed set of players but instead a smallish roster of performers from which a subset performs at each concert. Typically, the number of musicians at any particular performance is four to six.

At a concert at International House last month, Rizzer drew together an international set of players. Violinist Olga Dubossarskaya Kaler studied at the Moscow State Conservatory and won the Special Prize at the Rodolfo Lipitzer International Competition. Welsh violist Karl Davies studied at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. Clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya, who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, is a native of Costa Rica.

These musicians were joined by three Americans: cellist Andrew Snow, flutist Susan Levitin, and pianist Gerald Rizzer.

Their program opened with the Serenade No. 2 in G major for flute, violin, and viola by Max Reger. The opening Vivace established that this is an interesting combination of musical voices and the sound was playful and bouncy, ending with the lightness of a bubble. The Larghetto was sentimental and a bit heavy, yet moved along with nice pacing. The closing Presto featured a gentle touch in all the voices and very pretty legato. It was simultaneously relaxed and jaunty.

Next was Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat major, Op. 38, the composer’s own arrangement of the Op. 20 Septet. This rarely heard version of the work featured clarinet, cello and piano.

It was interesting to hear this piece in the pared down version, with its robust surges and crisp rhythms given a dramatic reading. Snow’s cello was pretty and flexible, Garcia-Montoya’s clarinet playful, and Rizzer’s piano clean and distinct. The variations were particularly engaging and the clarinet-cello harmonies pleasing. Beethoven’s boisterous energy was palpable. The music traveled easily throughout the piece and it ended with long, flowing lines.

After the intermission, Levitin, Garcia-Montoya, and Rizzer took on Ronn Yedidia’s “Black Snow,” a dance piece written in 1987. The work portrays two cats, one black and one white, and it is one of the winners of the Chicago Ensemble’s ongoing “Discover America” composition competition.

It opened with cracking piano which gave way to flute and clarinet melodies and then all three musicians joined to create a complex whole. Yedidia used the piano to create unsettling scenes and used the clarinet to create mystery as well as focus. The flute;s melancholy declarations always held your attention. The piece was enigmatic and compelling.

The concert closed with William Walton’s Quartet, composed in 1921 and revised in 1976. The composer was 16 when he started composing it, and was already an old man when he completed his revisions. The piece is scored for violin, viola, cello and piano and embraces English folksongs as well as French harmonies.

It began with lovely violin work by Kaler, who throughout the performance led with charm, calm and understated drama. The Allegramente quickly plunged into intensity.

The Allegro scherzando was given vigorous treatment by the strings, who had a fascinating little fugue with the piano serving as the exclamation point.

In the Andante tranquillo, the violin and cello sent plaintive melodies back and forth to each other. There were memorable moments of support from Davies’s viola and a brief yet gorgeous cello line.

There was agitation at the beginning of the Allegro molto and the players’ expertly deployed staccatos added to the drama.

It was a splendid concert, well-attended even though the group changed its normal starting time to 6:30 instead of its usual 3 p.m.

The final Chicago Ensemble concert of this season in Hyde Park is Sun., Jun. 8 at 3 p.m. at International House.

The program includes J.S. Bach: Cantata Aria for soprano, oboe, violin and piano; Telemann: Trio Sonata for oboe, violin, and piano; a Mozart aria as well as the Sonata in A major, K.526 for violin and piano; Poulenc’s 1962 Sonata for oboe and piano; Vaughan Williams: selections from Blake Songs and selections from Along the Field; and selected songs by Brahms. Michelle Areyzaga will be the soprano soloist.

For more information, visit thechicagoensemble.org.