A pleasing season opener at I-House

Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Ensemble began its 41st season with a concert in International House featuring soprano Michelle Areyzaga, mezzo-soprano Stacy Eckert, violinist Olga Kahler, and pianist Gerald Rizzer.

The program opened with selections from “Stabat Mater” by Pergolesi. Areyzaga and Eckert worked well together, each bringing bright individual sound, but also providing a pleasing blend. Kahler offered singing tone from the violin, and Rizzer at the piano was the perfect anchor for the performance. His playing was direct and restrained, often providing only a simple bass line, which added just the right amount of weight.

The combined effect was a winning one, memorable for the haunting nature of the music.

Kahler and Rizzer then took on the Sonata in D Major for violin and piano, K. 306. In the opening movement Rizzer established fleet fingering and an attractive legato. The violin was more ferocious than finessed, but this was repaired in the middle movement where the violin had a much more delicate sound. The concluding movement found both players creating pert music with just the right degree of animation. The cadenza was particularly witty.

Areyzaga and Eckert returned to the stage for some selected duets by Brahms. The brief “Am Strande” was given a wavy-hazy treatment suitable to the text about a wanderer along a shoreline.

“Die Schwestern” is a hilarious song about two loving sisters “identical as two eggs” who share life, joy and the same bed. All is well until they fall in love with the same man. “And now the song is over” comes tumbling the final line of the song. The singers gave the performance bounce and playfulness joy and reveled in the humor.

For “Klange” and “Die Boten der Liebe” the singers were adept at drawing out the pretty harmonies with Rizzer always providing a sympathetic accompaniment at the piano.

The second half of the performance began with Poulenc’s Sonata for violin and piano (completed in 1949). In the opening movement the violin was urgent and energetic, at times insistent and bold. The piano had moments of cushiony softness. Both players gave the middle movement a modest treatment while the concluding “presto tragico” was authoritative and confident. The music is, in fact, more plucky than tragic.

The concert closed with three duets by Tchaikovsky, sung in Russian. The singers dispatched them with flair, with particular torment imbued in “Minula strast’” (“Passion is gone”).

All Chicago Ensemble concerts feature a pre-concert and intermission reception with lots of delicious nibble as well as wine, coffee, and tea. These offer you a chance to mingle with your Hyde Park neighbors, make new musical friends, or have a chance to speak with the performers.

Also, Rizzer introduces each piece with spoken comments from the stage. These are interesting introductions, often with amusing elements (the music has “surging romanticism without any Wagnerian aspects to it”).

There are five more Chicago Ensemble concerts this season. The next is on Sun., Jan. 28 at 3 p.m. at International House and it will feature the music of Mozart, Martinu, and Dvorak. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit thechicagoensemble.org.