at the Academy of Movement and Music

November 10

One of the great pleasures of chamber music lies in tracking the progress of a group of musicians from the stage of “Hey, let’s put on a recital!” to complete confidence in themselves. In the past two seasons the members of Ensemble d’Accord have made the subtle shift from the highly promising to the totally professional, attaining the kind of understanding of each other’s styles that approaches mind reading. Only many hours spent locked up together can produce that.

Chamber-music groups made up of full-time instrumentalists (like Chicago Symphony members) can sometimes beat a dedicated part-time outfit in terms of technical achievement. But very seldom does one find in them the commitment to the music that is the rule with part-time players like Ensemble d’Accord; such commitment often produces dynamic, intensely personal music. Ensemble d’Accord has generally been both dynamic and personal right from the start; but in the past some members were technically weaker than others, and some acted like soloists, not always working together with their colleagues. Personnel changes and a higher level of commitment seem to have taken care of these problems.

The six members of Ensemble d’Accord–oboist Christine Janzow, clarinetist Ruth Rhodes, bassoonist Lynette Pralle, violinist Fred Sin-Yi Chu, cellist Jeremy Grace, and pianist Mary Ann Krupa–have by now spent so much time in musical company that they appear to have a perfect grasp of one another’s strengths and limitations. Conductorless, they shift gears through a complicated piece as flawlessly as a well-tuned Ferrari on a mountain road. They’ve chosen a difficult repertory–from demanding works by Schumann to a plethora of contemporary compositions–which must have required many hours of rehearsal. Happily, those hours paid off.

On November 10 Ensemble d’Accord presented a program (first performed two weeks earlier at the Beverly Art Center) that illustrated their peculiar strengths–particularly a variety of instrumental combinations and therefore of sounds. Unfortunately, in an attempt to give equal time to all six instruments, they also produced a program that was too long by a good 20 minutes.

The centerpiece of the evening was Rumpelstiltskin in Love, written for Ensemble d’Accord by Evanston composer Dan Tucker; it was designed to give the lie to Krupa’s usual complaint that “we never get to play all together.” Tucker’s second career–he retired in 1989 from the Tribune’s editorial board–has brought commissions from prestigious outfits such as the National Symphony; his opera Many Moons has been performed in Budapest.

Rumpelstiltskin in Love (which Tucker has now made the overture for his opera in progress, Rumpelstiltskin: The Real Story) is essentially neo-romantic in style, and it’s old-fashioned in the sense that it offers a story–the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale–within the music. Short and pleasant, the piece offers each instrument a chance to shine, and blends the varied sounds into a workable whole.

The other highlight of the concert was the Peter Schickele Quartet, in four movements, for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. This jazzy and original work is quite unlike the P.D.Q. Bach oeuvre for which Schickele is famous, and much less derivative than some of his other works. The “pirate music” finale was particularly effective in its driving five-eight rhythm.

The final test for any piece of music–particularly 20th-century music, which can be hard on the ears–is whether one would care to hear it again. Both the Tucker and Schickele pieces passed with flying colors, as did One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Irving Fine, a pleasant diversion that began life as the background music for a documentary on the making of children’s footwear. Less impressive was the wholly derivative and not particularly interesting Trio by British composer Madeline Dring; it would have been better to hear Bernstein’s or Copland’s own music instead of this pallid imitation.

Despite its whimsical title, Schumann’s Fairy Tales, opus 132, is rather grim; nevertheless it was chosen to round out the program’s theme of whimsy. Also featured were the Haydn-esque Concert Champetre by Tomasi and a brief Duet for violin and cello by Pleyel. The ensemble’s blend of traditional and contemporary music worked better than such multiperiod programs usually do for bigger organizations. Possibly the ensemble is more concerned with seeking out performable, listenable music that works for it than it is with simply doing contemporary music for its own sake.

Ensemble d’Accord is notable for the friendly informality of its concerts. The women wear colorful dresses instead of standard crow outfits, and instead of relying on program notes Krupa offers lively, humorous, and well-researched introductions to each piece herself. Because a fair number of children were expected to attend this fairy-tale-oriented program, the ensemble provided suckers (quickly discovered by the adult population during the intermission), crayons, and paper for coloring. The group was both helped and hindered by the setting of the Doris Humphrey Theater, which is rather like a gymnasium. It’s not much for looks, but the audience is right there next to the musicians, which gives the performance an immediacy not always to be found when there’s a proscenium in the way. Unfortunately the piano was somewhat out of tune, particularly in the uppermost octave, which robbed some of the playing of its magic.