By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
Gerald Rizzer has a knack for finding music with appeal and merit that most people haven’t heard before. He programs works spanning from the baroque period to this century written for a wide range of different small ensemble configurations. For 38 years Rizzer, the pianist, artistic director and founder of the Chicago Ensemble, has been bringing this fascinating music to Hyde Park. On Sunday afternoon the Chicago Ensemble started their 39th season, performing before a good-sized crowd – including college-aged adults and even a smattering of children – in the theater at International House.
Performing along with Rizzer were soprano Michelle Areyzaga, violinist Renée-Paule Gauthier, clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya, and cellist Steven Sigurdson.
The concert opened with Giocomo Meyerbeer’s Hirtenlied, written for soprano, clarinet and piano. Areyzaga performed this idyllic song about a shepherd high above the rest of world with beautiful clarity and sweetness. Garcia-Montoya’s clarinet was always assured, even when navigating the craggiest lines with the dexterity of a mountain goat one might imagine frolicking in the shepherd’s background, while Rizzer’s piano support was fluid and graceful.
Next up was Concerto a Tre by Ingolf Dahl, an intriguing piece for clarinet, violin and cello written in one continuous movement divided into three symmetric sections. The writing is reminiscent of both Stravinsky and Copland, with both these apparent influences mingling very attractively. The musicians were deft with the jazz-like rhythms in the opening section and drew out the playfulness in the often amiably ambling music. Garcia-Montoya was brilliant with the clarinet cadenza while the string players had a few notable intonation problems. But all was made right as the conclusion loomed and the full trio built up palpable momentum for the spright little ending.
The newest and longest composition on the program was Songs of the Kisaeng by the young Hawaiian composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, written in 2010. The work featured all the performers in a song cycle set to English translations (by Jaihiun Joyce Kim) of ancient Korean poetry written by kisaeng, roughly the Korean equivalent of the Japanese geisha. All 20 songs use very short poems, most only six lines, and the composer has organized them to create an arc that roughly recalls a story from birth to death.
Areyzaga was a splendid interpreter, offering a versatile performance filled with warmth, wonder, anguish, and resignation. She moved seamlessly from spoken lines to sung ones, from caressing, quiet moments to bold, forceful declarations. The instrumentalists provided a solid underlying structure, making the cycle something special.
Songs of the Kisaeng was a winner of “Discover America,” an on-going series of competitions started over 20 years ago that the Ensemble holds in order to find, recognize and perform new chamber works. This is yet another example of how Rizzer’s ear for fine music makes the Chicago Ensemble’s concerts a valuable contribution to the Chicago music scene.
Also on the program was Chicago-born composer Robert Muczynski’s Fantasy Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. It was tense and energetic as well as pleasing in spite of a few intonation problems in the cello.
The concert closed with the Phantasie Trio in C Minor by the Englishman Frank Bridge. Although he is most famous for being Benjamin Britten’s teacher, Bridge has written some wonderful music, little of which is regularly performed here in the U.S. This Phantasie was written while the composer was still in his 20s and writing in a late Romantic style that remains popular today.
Rizzer was consistently engaging at the piano, serving as the anchor for the performance. There was power and energy from Gauthier’s violin and this piece had the best cello work from Sigurdson. The brooding qualities of the first section were well realized and the buildup to the finale was nicely done.
Chicago Ensemble concerts also feature refreshments: wine, tea and coffee as well as an appetizing spread of fruits, cheeses and cookies. Before the concert or during the intermission, you can nibble while you chat with old friends or new.
There are four more concerts in the Chicago Ensemble’s season, the next one taking place in February. Each concert is presented twice: first at the Fourth Presbyterian Church (composer Michael-Thomas Foumai spoke at the opening concert of the season there) and then at I-House. For more information, visit thechicagoensemble.org.