Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ronen Chamber Ensemble enters nature's realm to start 2015-16 season

The nature theme was lightly applied in the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-opening concert in Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room Tuesday evening.

Christoph Nils Thompson
A horn tune always places the listener in a forest, as co-artistic director Gregory Martin reminded a capacity audience before the performance of the program finale, Brahms' Horn Trio, op. 40. And Till Eulenspiegel answers "a call of nature" briefly in Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," an arrangement for violin, horn, bassoon clarinet and contrabass, which opened the concert.

Touching more substantially on the natural world was the piece being premiered, Christoph Nils Thompson's "Borchert Quintets: Five Poems for Woodwind Quintet." Thompson, assistant professor of music media production at Ball State University, read each of the poems in the original German and his own English translation before the corresponding quintet was played.

The players — flutist Tamara Thweatt, oboist Timothy Clinch, clarinetist David Bellman, bassoonist Mark Ortwein, and hornist Julie Beckel Yager — gave a good account of Thompson's picturesque settings. "The Moon Is Lying" had a teasing buoyancy, and "Farewell"'s long phrases, with swells of passion, testified to arguably genuine expressions of love. A prisoner's longing for freedom found expression in "The Bird," which of course gives the flute considerable independence in music that sometimes flows, sometimes romps with jazzy insouciance.

"The Night" came close to a classical blues, with idiomatic zest evident especially in Ortwein's playing. The finale, "Try To," one of those poems that offer a guide to right living, was resolute, almost marchlike, with "windy" episodes underlining our assigned duty to resist every idle breeze that blows. All told, "Borchert Quintets" is a palatable, multi-colored addition to the contemporary repertoire for this time-tested ensemble combination.

The Strauss arrangement moved through the essential elements of the familiar symphonic tone poem that focuses on a legendary mischief-maker who finally receives condign punishment for his misdeeds. Ortwein, co-artistic director and clarinetist David Bellman, contrabassist L. Bennett Crantford, and violinist Philip Palermo were joined by guest artist John Cox, horn, to present the work's mordant whimsy with considerable narrative and expressive skill.
John Cox, horn

Cox, first horn with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, returned to help Martin and Palermo end the program with the stirring, songful Brahms Horn Trio. I found the tempo and mood changes in the first movement rather loose and uncertain, but the performance gained focus as it proceeded. Apart from a second-movement burble, Cox played with assurance, accuracy and warmth. The ensemble was forthright and vigorous in the Scherzo and the "Allegro con brio" finale. It was adequately doleful in the slow movement, with the designation "Adagio mesto" stipulating a sad mood.

Martin had a solo spotlight just after intermission, presenting six character pieces by Edvard Grieg under the rubric, "Music from the Norwegian Mountains." Having touted the Norwegian composer as "the godfather of impressionism," the pianist exploited to the full the scores' color palette. These pieces were offered as keenly designed pictures of rural life, in solitude and in company alike. The set ended brilliantly with the lively "Humoresque."

It was good to get rare exposure to a composer often disparaged as a regionalist. Without disputing that directly, it can't be denied that Grieg knew much about traditional life in the natural world and how to put it into charming musical terms.

The Ronen Chamber Ensemble's seasonlong emphasis on nature is off to a good start.