Chicago Ensemble ends 41st season in Hyde Park

The Chicago Ensemble (from left), Gerald Rizzer, Alan Snow, and Andrew Snow, performed at I-House on Sunday afternoon. – M.L. Rantala

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

For over 40 years the Chicago Ensemble has offered Hyde Park fine chamber music recitals. They concluded their 41st season with the performance of two masterworks, one by Beethoven and one by Brahms, on Sunday afternoon. They drew a large, appreciative audience in the theater of International House at the University of Chicago.

The concert opened with the Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 1, No. 1 by Beethoven. In remarks immediately before the musicians ascended the stage, Gerald Rizzer noted that while this was the composer’s first published work, it wasn’t his first-ever composition.

The ensemble opened with breezy and uncluttered work at the piano by Rizzer, setting the stage for an unforced performance, which permeated the lovely rendition offered by the trio of players. Rizzer provided well-appreciated clarity at the keyboard as well as bounce and vitality. He was joined by Andrew Snow and Alan Snow, in making the Beethoven lively and invigorating.

Cellist Andrew Snow, a long-time member of the Chicago Ensemble, was joined by a violinist a generation younger than himself: his son Alan Snow, a recent graduate of Indiana University who now serves as concertmaster of the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra. Winner of the 2016 Latin American Music Center recording competition (with pianist Joanne Chang), the younger Snow made his debut with the Chicago Ensemble earlier this season by filling in at the last minute for the indisposed Mathias Tacke, a violinist with many claims to fame, not least of which is his membership in the now-defunct Vermeer Quartet. The younger Snow acquitted himself with aplomb, so it is no surprise that Rizzer, founder and music director of the Chicago Ensemble, called on him to perform again.

It was rewarding to watch the two string players performing with ease and clear communication. Father and son, who have performed together in many guises over the years, sometimes along with Alan’s mother (who is Andrew’s wife), a pianist, have an easy rapport that made for great ensemble playing.

The Adagio benefitted from an attractively hushed violin, offering long mellifluous phrases. The piano commanded attention even when Rizzer softly stroked the keyboard. And the cello was not merely sturdy, but rock solid: singing tone combined with rhythmic precision. The Scherzo was feisty and energetic and always had good balance.

The concluding Finale: Presto had controlled ferocity and gloriously frisky piano runs. There was also lots of sheer determination and outright joy in the playing.

After the intermission, the three players then took on the Trio No. 2 in C Major, op. 87 by Brahms. They dived in without ceremony and immediately took on the masterwork, offering incisive playing and drawing out the interest in the nooks and crannies of the score. There was particularly bold and striking work by the strings.

As noted by Rizzer in his remarks immediately before the performance, the Scherzo is anything by funny (“scherzo” means “joke” in Italian) and the players gave it the ominous quality the composer wanted. The concluding movement had many brooding moments that the musicians made powerful and they built the climax with excitement and drama. The audience rewarded them with great applause.

The concert took place during the Alumni Weekend at the University of Chicago and the audience contained many regular Chicago Ensemble enthusiasts as well as folks hearing them for the first time. One regular, who knew I wrote for the Hyde Park Herald, took me aside during the intermission to tell me that he has attended Chicago Ensemble concerts for nearly 40 years and praised the acoustics at I-House. Harry Poffenbarger, who travels to Hyde Park for these concerts from his home in River Forest, said that he appreciates the repertoire of the ensemble, and noted that he finds that they “always play interesting things well,” but noted in addition that the Hyde Park audience “knows how to listen.”

As always, the concert included a reception before the music started as well as during the intermission, with a lovely buffet. As a celebration of another satisfying season end, it included Prosecco served with orange-flavored sparking water. The audience seemed well pleased with it all, and the afternoon ended with smiles and satisfaction all around.