at United Church of Hyde Park

March 8, 1987


at Mandel Hall

March 17, 1987

Any music organization that survives its first ten years deserves commendation. This season, at least three of the better-known groups in town are marking that milestone. The Chicago Ensemble, the Chicago String Ensemble, and the William Ferris Chorale all belong to the generation that sprang forth under humble circumstances in the 70s and have flourished — more or less.

Why were the 70s a propitious time for debutants? When I first arrived here, almost two decades ago, there was hardly any home-grown music scene to speak of. Even the Chicago Symphony was mired in the doldrums. Local musicians, according to old-timers, behaved like their theater counterparts — as victims of the Second City syndrome, an inferiority complex exacerbated by the discouraging reviews of a Tribune critic.

The early 70s produced new audiences: an increasing number of college graduates eager to expand their horizons beyond Music Appreciation 101; the public that swore by WFMT. With them came a fresh crop of ambitious young performers. It helped, too, that arts councils had just been set up to dispense the requisite grants. Add to these ingredients three or four entrepreneurial souls. Presto! Take the case of Music of the Baroque. When, in 1971, a socially well connected Hyde Parker named Lucille Ollendorff thought choirmaster Thomas Wikman produced a more exciting Saint Matthew’s Passion with a church group than Georg Solti did with the CSO, she got together with him. And the rest is history.

MOB blazed the trail, and its tremendous success has served as an inspiration. Nowadays, the group’s renown is nationwide, bolstered by a profile in the Wall Street Journal and by regular broadcast over the WFMT network. MOB lives up to the hype: in its specialty of baroque choral (and instrumental) music it has few equals; as an exponent of Purcell’s masques, Handel’s oratorios, and Bach’s cantatas, it is among the very best. Because of limited rehearsal time (necessitated by the free-lance musicians’ other commitments), MOB tends not to venture outside that core repertory. When it does, the result can be intriguing. Its performance of a Schubert mass last year, for example, was ardent but fell short of imparting the music’s serene beauty. Yet no one could fault Wikman’s willingness to experiment, to find yet another right vehicle for his ensemble.

Mozart’s Missa Brevis, Solo Organ, the centerpiece of MOB’s latest round of concerts, is such a vehicle. It belongs in that category of rococo liturgical music, with its florid, half-secular exuberance, to which Wikman’s extroverted approach and predilection for pointed rhythm seem eminently suited. Indeed, MOB did not disappoint this time around. Written in 1776, this C-major mass anticipated the magnificent Coronation Mass of three years later. Its “brevity” is due to the custom of the Austrian church of not repeating the mass texts (to keep the service short); the organ figures prominently in the Benedictus, hence the nickname.

In presenting it, Wikman followed the practice of Mozart’s time of separating a mass’s movements with other, shorter musical works. The contrasting episodes allowed MOB to heighten the drama of shifting moods — from devotion to sorrow to penitence to affirmation. The overall effect was almost operatic. Patrice Michaels, Karen Brunssen, William Watson, Richard Cohn were the quartet of capable soloists. Michaels’s voice, in particular, sounded bold and radiant. The warmth of Brussen’s tone exquisitely complemented Alicia Purcell’s delicate and sweet timbres in the duet “Sub Tuum Praesidium”: they were mesmerizing. The chorus was its usual splendid self. And in the three sonatas for organ and orchestra, David Schrader handled the solo passages dexterously and with a sense of fun. The orchestra provided sturdy support: attention was paid to shaping the phrases, tending the instrumental textures, and sounding the sense of the harmonies. Though no stickler for authenticity, Wikman and his musicians had fashioned a performance that sounded just right.

In the concert’s top half the spotlight shined alternately on the chorus and key soloists. Suffice it to say that the choristers dispatched with gusto Handel’s “Coronation” Anthem no. 2, and in Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’amore, Strings and Continuo Robert Morgan played the oboe with ease and style. Purcell and Brunssen were a solemn and fetching pair in Maurice Greene’s stately “Lord Let Me Know Mine End.”

One pleasure of following MOB is the prospect of discovering new voices or hearing familiar ones ripen. Over the years, Wikman’s bel canto techniques have helped shape the artistry of a number of singers. Among MOB alumni have been Isola Jones and Linda Mabbs, both now heavily engaged here and elsewhere. Who is likely to be next? My bet is on Michaels and Purcell.

All’s well with MOB, what about our three anniversary groups? Let me talk about the Chicago Ensemble, whom I heard last month, and save for later the Ferris Chorale and the Chicago String Ensemble. As far back as I can remember, the CE has never indulged in a downright poor performance. I was present at its debut, given in a Hyde Park auditorium. Even then, distorted acoustics notwithstanding, one could sense confident musicianship and esprit de corps from pianist Gerald Rizzer and his colleagues. Both Kyle Gann and I have reported on the CE’s progress in these pages, and neither of us, I believe, has been less than enthusiastic. The ensemble’s hallmark (and main appeal) is, of course, its remarkably catholic fare. Its most recent program was typical: three stylistically disparate 20th-century pieces, balanced by two seldom-performed works of Schubert and Brahms. Rizzer regards it as his mission to introduce unfamiliar music. He must spend his spare hours in music libraries, for it takes diligence (and erudition) to dig up opuses by half-forgotten composers — such as the Sonata da Camera for Flute, Cello and Piano by Gabriel Pierne and the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Alvin Etler.

Unfortunately, neither piece was quite worth the effort. A pupil of Franck, Pierne (1863-1937) wrote in a lighthearted, suave vein. His sonata, according to Rizzer’s program note, recalls Debussy. That’s too tall a claim. The best that can be said is that it made a pleasant showcase for the talent of flutist Susan Levitin. She was expert and charming; she knows how to keep an audience in thrall. Eder’s sonata, too, is a display vehicle. With its jazzy accent and chromatic collage, it ought to sound exciting and sensuous. Clarinetist Charlene Zimmerman, however, was not up to the task; hers was a self-conscious and tentative stab at virtuosity.

Shulamit Ran’s Private Game, for clarinet and cello, is not among the more imaginative works of hers I have heard. Commissioned by the Da Capo Chamber Players, it incorporates the group’s name in its format. “Da capo” means to repeat the first section of a piece after intervening music has been heard. Ran’s description of her procedure is quoted in the program note: “Repetition is the essence of comprehensibility. . . . I found myself intrigued by the ideal of having strict repetition. . . . My solution: there are three brief da capo sections. interlaced into the piece. . . . They are essential, for they give the piece coherence. . . . They are my private game.” Ran, a professor at the University of Chicago, expresses her method clearly on paper. But her Private Game is a terse intellectual teaser, not as inventive as her explanation. Though rhapsodic and even theatrical in its broodingness, it failed to engage my interest.

Schubert’s Variations for Flute and Piano based on “Trock’ne Blumen,” one of the songs from Die schone Mullerin, was intended for performance by amateur musicians in his inner circle. But it has the kind of emotional pull that even seasoned players find hard to bring off. The music is touching and sad, suffused with the ineffable yearning and otherworldly glow characteristic of his later piano sonatas. Accompanied by the piano, the flute essentially takes the place of the singer. Levitin’s playing was fluent, elegant, and full of tristesse; Rizzer was the sympathetic accomplice.

In Brahms’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, the evening’s finale, the opulent range of the clarinet is exploited to the hilt to sustain the autumnal, introspective mood. I had expected to hear sumptuous sounds and a deeply felt reading. But that was not to be. The players — Rizzer, Zimmerman, and Michael Masters — did hit most of the notes right, yet there was no probing into the heart of this music. Where a sense of emotional adventure was called for, I heard only hushed reverence. At no time was the complaint about Rizzer’s occasional dullness more true than here. Too often, in playing Mozart and other masters, Rizzer projects the image of an aloof Olympian, too well mannered to let go. The music of Brahms, in particular, deserves to be treated passionately, if not lustfully. Instead, it got cold-shouldered.

This reluctance to relax, I think, has been a bothersome problem for the CE at the box office. Chamber music is more than just a few personable musicians plying their trade in intimate surroundings; it is an art of communication, mysterious in its alchemy. Charisma, I know for sure, is an essential element. And the ability to establish rapport with listeners is, too. That’s why audiences everywhere respond to the Juilliard Quartet and the Kronos Quartet. I admire the evident playing skills of the CE members and Rizzer’s pedagogical ambitions. But it’s high time they learn to loosen up; they should all emulate Susan Levitin. Otherwise, the ensemble will continue having a tough time reaching beyond its small, though fiercely loyal following.

Like Wikman and MOB, Rizzer and the CE have benefited considerably from the labors of an indefatigable lady. After having managed and cheered the ensemble since its inception, Irene Patner recently called it quits. To her, I extend a hearty brava. Not enough of us realize that behind every noteworthy musical venture hovers a solicitous angel.