Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ronen Chamber Ensemble takes an imaginative leap into the season

Whether your idea of a seasonal story involves Hanukkah, the Nativity narrative, or "A Visit From St. Nicholas,"  as the year nears its end you are never far from being reminded of your connection to beloved stories.

The Ronen Chamber Ensemble got into that spirit in the second concert of its 30th season Tuesday evening with "'Once Upon a Time," featuring three contrasting compositions, all calling upon the storytelling imagination. The sources ranged from a Hans Christian Andersen adaptation to one composer's  recollections of boyhood to a third composer's purely abstract evocation of how fairy tales make us feel.

David Bellman, clarinet
The Indiana Landmarks Center's Grand Hall made a perfect setting for the concert, particularly in the festive nostalgia of Leos Janacek's "Mladi" (Youth),  a wind sextet that blossomed in  this setting. Co-founder and co-artistic director David Bellman, clarinet, was joined onstage by Rebecca Arrensen (flute), Jennifer Christen (oboe), Robert Danforth (horn), Oleksiy Zakharov (bassoon) and Christina Martin (bass clarinet).

From the horn's firm call to visit the past in the first movement to the progress from tense mystery to exuberance in the fourth, this was an expressively fleshed-out performance. The playing was vivid and full of character, allowing the listener to people the music with the adventures of childhood — especially their happy endings.

Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, cello

At a concert titled "Once Upon a Time," you expect to be told a story, and we were. A special treat with a narrative to tie it together was "The Emperor and the Nightingale," a colorful piece for all ages by David Mullikin, a composer living in Colorado. (I knew him in the 1970s when he was principal cellist of the Flint Symphony Orchestra and I wrote about music for the Flint Journal.)

Tamara Thweatt provided the winning narration, assisted by her son, Benji Berners, who had a few lines to say (as the young boy who helps the Emperor's servant find the elusive Nightingale in the forest) and stroked wind chimes now and then. The story is based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale that was also used by Igor Stravinsky in his early three-act "lyric tale," "Le Rossignol."

In the story, a Nightingale that talks as well as sings restores the Emperor to health after the monarch realizes a mechanical counterpart doesn't provide the simple joy of nature's lyrical beauty.  Set in ancient China, the material invites the composer to flex his pentatonic muscles, and many imitative effects provide the ensemble's percussionist (here, Jack Brennan) with a challenging variety of duties.

The other instruments are flute, with Arrensen characterizing the nightingale, and a string trio (Jennifer Greenlee, violin; Nancy Agres, viola; Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, cello). With the percussion, the string group has to represent the Emperor, the ornamented artificial rival to the real nightingale, and other sorts of contexts as the story unfolds.

The ensemble ably filled the well-integrated setting in the quaint story of redemption through nature's music. How true it is that the wealth able to underwrite glittering artifice to catch the attention can't easily provide long-term joy! The composer's inspiration is proportionate to the events in the story, except that the song by which the Nightingale wins the Emperor's devotion is disturbingly sparse.

The concert opened with a late Schumann work, "Fairy Tales," with its four abstract movements neatly performed by Bellman, violist Mike Chen and pianist Gregory Martin.  The second and fourth movements in particular implied the quirky turns of plot that classic fairy tales offer; they were played in an appropriately playful spirit. For the third movement, the trio successfully conveyed the tender feelings behind the sort of fairy tale that offers reassurance and comfort to young and old alike.

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