Chicago Ensemble offers Bliss at the International House

The Chicago Ensemble performing at International House (Photo by M.L. Rantala)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

The 42nd season of the Chicago Ensemble came to a close Sunday afternoon at International House, where the group has played since its inaugural season. Gerald Rizzer, founder and artistic director of the ensemble, was the pianist, and he was joined by oboist Ricardo Castañeda, violinists Jaime Gorgojo and Alan Snow, violist Amy Hess, and cellist Andrew Snow (father of Alan).

They offered a wide-ranging program, with music by Mozart, Arthur Bliss, Saint-Saëns, and Walter Piston.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K.414 in the composer’s own transcription which reduces the orchestral part to string quartet. Rizzer was lyrical at the piano, with a light and fluid touch, clear articulation, and pleasing buoyancy. The strings were at times a little violin-heavy, but offered a bright and pleasing sound.

In his remarks before the 1927 Quintet (for oboe and string quartet) by Arthur Bliss, Rizzer joked there was time in the UK when the Three B’s were sometimes described as Bax, Bridge, and Bliss, three British composers of the early 20th Century. Bliss is not often played these days, but Castañeda’s pliant, plaintive oboe proved that this is a work worth hearing. The strings were assertive and provided a strong rhythmic anchor. The “Andante” featured complex harmonies and good energy while the concluding “Vivace” was full of urgency and tension.

The Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Saint-Saëns, a surprisingly short work, was given a loving treatment by Castañeda and Rizzer. They coaxed the sweetness out of the score in the “Andantino” and offered a charming account of the “Allegretto.” The final rapid movement had a gentle yet palpable propulsion throughout, leading into the satisfying conclusion.

Walter Piston was an American composer who taught music at Harvard for over 30 years, whose students include Leonard Bernstein and Elliot Carter as well as Hyde Park’s own Easley Blackwood. It is unusual to hear his work in performance, so it was a pleasure to hear the Chicago Ensemble take on his 1949 Quintet for piano and string quartet.

The opening “Allegro” was strong, featuring muted tension and a slow accumulation of power. The middle movement was brooding while the concluding “Allegro” put some of the composer’s American-rooted music on display. The performance was fresh, spirited, and attractive.

Before the concert and at the intermission there was a fabulous array of food and drink provided by International House. Hyde Parkers gathered over cheese and sausage and croissants, sipping Prosecco and chatting about the music. It was a glorious way to spend a Sunday afternoon.