Baroque and beyond: the Chicago Ensemble in Hyde Park

Oboist Ricardo Castañeda and soprano Michelle Areyzaga perform at International House on Sunday. – M.L. Rantala

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Gerald Rizzer is the Chicago Ensemble’s programming ace. For any handful of chamber voices he can construct a fascinating musical program, often spanning more than 200 years and nearly always including one or more compositions that are not often performed but deserve to be.

Rizzer brought his programming acumen to yet another Chicago Ensemble performance in Hyde Park this past Sunday at International House when his group performed a handful of baroque works for the first half of the program and 20th century works after the intermission.

The highlight of the afternoon was the final work, the only one which featured all the performers on the program: Michelle Areyzaga, soprano; Eleanor Bartsch, violin; Andrew Snow, cello; Susan Levitin, flute; Ricardo Castañeda, oboe; and Gerald Rizzer, harpsichord. Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs (1962) was given a thoughtful, meditative treatment.

Soprano Michelle Areyzaga took a light-hearted approach to “Spring,” infusing it with easy flowing diction and warm fun. She was restrained in “Sleep” and was given particularly sympathetic accompaniment by Rizzer. All six of the musicians worked effectively to create a scene of cold weather with a warm mood in “Winter.” There were several beautiful flute and oboe lines in “Dirge.” Areyzaga knew just how long to float the gently sung high notes in “Diaphenia.” The ensemble brought the song cycle to a close with quiet prettiness in “Hymn.”

For the first time the Chicago Ensemble brought a harpsichord to International House. (Actually, it was a Casio electronic keyboard.) While early music enthusiasts might have desired period instruments, the Chicago Ensemble showed how this music has both charm and power even when played on contemporary implements.

The opening work of the afternoon, Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantata “Son contenta di soffrire” (“I am content to suffer”) found Areyzaga in fine form, effectively expressing the suffering of a woman who loves a man who is unfaithful to her. Snow created lively, bouncing lines on the cello and the electronic harpsichord offered a remarkably pleasing sound.

Rizzer introduced the Sonata in B-flat Major for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord by Johann Friedrich Fasch by pointing out that not only was Fasch a contemporary of J.S. Bach, but that he was a composer who sometimes wrote in a similar fashion. So much so that at least one of the works once attributed to Bach is now known to be by Fasch. Perhaps with this in mind, I heard the genial sound of a Brandenburg Concerto in the Allegro movement. Throughout, the music had nice flow and airy freshness, although the movement marked Grave sounded remarkably cheerful to me.

Soprano, oboe, cello, and harpsichord joined forces for Handel’s “Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken” from Nine German Arias. Areyzaga sang with gorgeous tone and phrasing while Castañeda’s oboe was elegant and captivating.

Antonio Vivaldi’s Concert in G Minor, RV 107 (for all ensemble members except soprano) had some rough going, as the group often failed to create a fully coherent sound.

Similarly, Levitin’s flute work suffered in Martinu’s “Promenades” (1939). She struggled with tonal quality, was often rushed, and left many notes unarticulated. Nonetheless, the Adagio featured some sweet and sensitive playing by violinist Bartsch (making her debut with the ensemble).

Cellist Snow and oboist Castañeda took on “Café 1930” from Piazzola’s “Histoire du Tango”. The cello sounded deep and engaging from the outset and the oboe was liquid and languid. It was a lovely performance.

The Chicago Ensemble’s International House performances are co-sponsored by the University of Chicago International House Global Voice Program and in recent years has seen an upswing in students in the audience. Each piece in a Chicago Ensemble concert is prefaced by brief spoken remarks by Rizzer, giving the listener some useful background. And there is an informal reception before the concert and during intermission, featuring cheese, fruit, cookies (and more) along with coffee, tea, or wine. The atmosphere is friendly, open, and casual.

The final Chicago Ensemble concert of the season takes place in June. On the program: Beethoven’s Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major for violin, cello and piano and Brahms’s Trio No. 2 in C Major for the same instruments. It takes place at 3 p.m. on Sun., Jun. 3 in the theater at International House (1414 E. 59th St.). For more information, visit thechicagoensemble.org.