at Saint Paul’s Church

November 15

Fifteen years ago the Chicago String Ensemble–12 violinists, 4 violists, 4 cellists, and 2 bassists–opened shop as the midwest’s only professional all-string orchestra. Now, several ups and downs later, the group is marking its 15th anniversary. The CSE is a hardy survivor. For a brief spell in the 80s, when founder Alan Heatherington relocated to Buffalo, the ensemble started an artistic and financial downward spiral. Fortunately, Heatherington returned; the CSE has recently added a suburban venue, and its subscription is expanding. Unfortunately, the rich all-string literature still lacks broad appeal in the U.S., and the CSE remains one of only a handful of all-string ensembles in the country. Nonetheless, in the last decade the company has given more local premieres–35 or so–than any other group in town, with the possible exception of the University of Chicago’s Contemporary Chamber Players.

Two premieres highlighted the ensemble’s latest concert. Robert Lombardo’s Aria variata, written for the CSE, is a sensuous, lyrical ode to a painful, faded love. The text–a poem by the composer’s wife, Kathleen Lombardo–is full of bird images: a wren that stands for the woman singer and imposing predatory birds–an Asian bird, a halcyon, an eagle–that are specters from a relationship the narrator must come to terms with. The music is built on contrasting material that underscores a state of mind that shifts from bittersweet memory to desperation to regret to indignation to serenity. It ends on a lingering note of quiet exultation. Lombardo’s idiom is pleasantly atonal. But I was reminded of the vocal writings of David Del Tredici and of Ned Rorem, and found the work rather derivative. Its merit lies in skillful imitation and in the fairly opulent central theme. Soprano Rebecca Patterson sang touchingly and with enough bite to avoid bathos. But the string players sounded a bit under-rehearsed; in some passages the contrapuntal lines were blurred and ungainly.

Angels (Variations for Organ and Orchestra), a 1985 work by New York composer and organist McNeil Robinson, is an old-fashioned showstopper with modernist touches. The organ is the star here, its freewheeling escapades accompanied and reinforced by the strings and cheered on by an insistent celeste. According to a program note, the title refers to a violin solo turn in the sixth variation (nicely played by concertmaster Virginia Graham) that may be construed as an angel of mercy. Most impressive about the piece and the performance was the sense of playful eloquence. I especially enjoyed the closing minutes, when the organ and the strings raced at full blast to the finish line. It was a moment reminiscent of the best Cesar Franck had to offer, and CSE regular David Schrader again showed why he’s one of the best organ virtuosos around. Donald Mead provided the vital punctuation on the celeste, and the orchestra sounded lush and vibrant.

In Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor (S. 1052), the orchestra and Schrader, this time on harpsichord, were an unequal match. For some reason–maybe the acoustics–the harpsichord playing was muted and came across more like an extended and elaborate continuo against the full-bodied orchestral backup. One could see, if barely hear, that Schrader’s finger work was dextrous and energetic. Overall the performance was genteel–of the sort that some people mistake for authenticity but that I find cloying. There were also tricky passages the orchestra did not negotiate gracefully.

The evening’s worst performance came first. Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which has become yuppie Muzak, is a modest exercise in counterpoint. To reveal its simple structure of three voices, it ought to be played stately with a bit of brio. But the ensemble rushed through it and didn’t always hit the notes. It redeemed itself with the Sinfonia no. 12 by Mendelssohn, the last work on the program and the best performance. One might guess this work came late in the composer’s life, but it was actually the last of a dozen symphonies for strings he wrote before he was 14, around the time he wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Though an example of youthful infatuation with the styles of Bach and the French Baroque, this sinfonia shows clear signs of Mendelssohn’s gift for melody as well as his impeccable craftsmanship and Mozartean handling of balance. The opening movement is Handelian in its fugal grandeur, though too drawn out for its own good; the slow second movement is really an exquisite nocturne. In the vivacious last movement, which contains echoes of the mature Italian and Scottish symphonies, the music comes to a halt, then bursts into a spirited dash before coming to the final stop. Here the ensemble was what it should be: singing ardently in one voice.