Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In its Wood Room home, the Ronen Chamber Ensemble seasons its music-making with a seasonal theme

Since Gregory Martin was taken into the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's artistic direction by founders David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, thematic programming has been the norm.

British composer Robert Saxton (1953-    )
The tradition continued Tuesday night with "Time and the Seasons," the Ronen's musically dappled inauguration of the 2015-16 season.  Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room was nearly filled to capacity for a program of British and American music around the theme. (The Ronen season as a whole celebrates the centenary of Albert Einstein's "General Theory of Relativity" — certainly the ne plus ultra of possible thematic links to mere music.)

The concert's centerpiece, distributed evenly in four parts over its course, was a composition called "Time and the Seasons" by Robert Saxton, an Oxford professor and musician whom Martin considers a mentor. The song cycle came across particularly well as interpreted by Norwegian bass-baritone Njål Sparbo, with Martin at the piano.

His pitch control was immaculate, notably in the unvarying pitch of the first song, "Winter, still, winter," and in the unaccompanied song "Autumn." His English diction was clearer and more expressive in singing than in speaking, probably an analogue to the truism that singers with a speech stutter jettison that handicap when they sing.

Speaking came up time and again, because, until the last of Martin's oral program notes, Sparbo was assigned to deliver them. With notes as ornate and loaded with cultural references as Martin's tend to be,  probably only native speakers who've practiced their parts should shoulder the responsibility of getting this sort of guidance across to audiences. (And the printed program notes should always carry composers' dates.)

"Summer Psalm" was also refreshing, with its running piano figures reflecting that season's bursting energy; it followed effectively upon the piano solo, "Summer Seascape." The finale, "The Beach in Winter: Scratby (for Tess)," didn't strike me as gray as Martin indicated it would be. In its angularity and mounting boldness, its colors spread across a considerable part of the spectrum, even if more vivid hues were appropriately ignored. Anyone who's spent time on beaches in winter, unless they are in the tropics and subtropics, knows the feeling.

Jennifer Christen was featured in three works.
But back to summer: The concert's standout piece was Samuel Barber's variegated, beautifully laid-out "Summer Music." This piece was eloquently performed by clarinetist Bellman with three Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra colleagues plus flutist Alistair Howlett. The ISO members involved were Jennifer Christen, oboe; Mike Muszynski, bassoon, and Robert Danforth, horn.

As well-integrated as it is, "Summer Music" takes in quite a range, its pastoral mood occasionally deepened by perky, staccato passages evoking the constant movement of insects, birds, and perhaps other wildlife best left to the imagination. I'm guessing that one more rehearsal might have brought Tuesday's performance to the brink of perfection, but the one on offer represented the work well.

Christen also gave a good account of herself in a movement from Kenneth Leighton's "Veris Gratia," which had some fetching oboe-cello dialogue (Kurt Fowler was the cellist), anchored to Martin's piano. I could make nothing much of Sparbo's program notes, but I liked the piece. The oboist also was in the spotlight, with Martin, in Edmund Rubbra's Sonata for Oboe and Piano, a buoyant, flowing work of restrained feeling, some of it embodying the stiff-upper-lip stereotype of the English character. Her warm, steady, full-bodied tone was a delight to hear, supported self-effacingly by Ronen's piano-man-of-all-work, Gregory Martin.

Bellman's clarinet showcase was less satisfying: three movements from Martin's "On a Winter Night." I'm not sure when "Ballade (By the Fireside)" became "Among the Snow-Laden Groves," maybe when the scene-setting chordal writing of "Ballade" went away. But some interesting harmonies underneath the lyrical flow engaged the interest where the conventional melodic writing and phrasing did not. Overall, this was one of the most conservative, hemmed-in new pieces I've heard recently.