Ronen Chamber Ensemble launches season with Sister Cities theme

A background of flags offered an unusual visual enhancement to the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's season-opening concert Wednesday night in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room.

Sextet acknowledges applause at conclusion of Ludwig Thuille piece.
The display signaled the theme of season-long programming related to Indianapolis' Sister Cities, eight of them to date. Two were represented by composers featured at the concert: Campinas, Brazil, by Jailton de Oliveira; Northamptonshire, United Kingdom, by Malcolm Arnold.

The program was filled out by a substantial, evocative Sextet for Winds and Piano by Ludwig Thuille and Robert Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, op. 63.

The concert's first half put the formidable flutist Alistair Howlett in three different contexts. He had the honor of enunciating the program theme unaccompanied  in "Sertonancias" No. 2 for solo flute. Essentially a lyrical piece with some well-placed interruptions of its flow, the roughly five-minute work held the interest without working too hard at it. Howlett's performance was charming.

Arnold's "Divertimento" op. 37 spread some more charm around the room. Its six movements, crisply characterized as they followed the movement headings, were played with exemplary coordination and vivacity by Howlett with oboist Tim Clinch and clarinetist David Bellman, who co-founded the Ronen series decades ago with his wife, Ingrid Fischer-Bellman.

Particularly revealing of the characteristic Arnold wit were the second movement, "Languido," whose relaxed phrasing had its hints of laziness underlined by close harmonies — as if the instruments couldn't be bothered keeping "personal space" between them — and "Maestoso," a march upheld with fanfare gestures that became tricky and frolicsome before righting itself near the end.

Ludwig Thuille: Quite the 'stache!
The cast of players expanded to six for the sextet by Thuille, a late 19th-century composer from Austria.  Joining the Arnold trio musicians for the performance were Gregory Martin, piano; Robert Danforth, horn, and Mark Ortwein, bassoon.

The transalpine position of Thuille's Tyrol comes into play in this four-movement work; it breathes Italian air. More substantially in evidence is his association with Richard Strauss and other composers centered in Munich. The opening movement is tidily crafted, its gentle, compact melody subject to substantial stirring-up in the middle. This is well-schooled, mainstream romanticism that was brilliantly set forth by the ensemble.

The second movement, like the first, opens with a horn statement — in this case, it's a full-blown melody, nicely stated by Danforth. Immediately evident was the connection with the Strauss family (Richard's father was a distinguished player of the instrument, and horns are a spectacular presence in many of the younger Strauss' works). The tune becomes somewhat anthemic, with a steady accompaniment pattern in a meter and tempo hinting that the movement could be seen as a shirttail relative of the Pilgrim's Chorus from "Tannhäuser."

A charming "Gavotte" third movement draws upon music-making of both city and country. Martin's variable tempo in an episode spotlighting the piano had a Viennese lilt to it. The finale was an attractive gigue, with some lively chromatic games applied to the thematic material.

After intermission, a more conflicted piece in a more conventional chamber-music set-up concluded the program. The Schumann trio emphasized the string-instrument side of the Ronen artistic profile. Violinist Joana Genova joined Martin and Fischer-Bellman. The fairytale aspect of Schumann came out in the first movement. Also evident there was something of a disparity between violin and cello, with Genova's playing vigorously projected and overshadowing the cello.

Characteristic dotted rhythms in the second movement were pronounced but not made too jagged, which helped them fit in better with their surroundings.  The slow movement, with its suggestions of a Bach aria (as the pianist pointed out in oral program notes), got off to a tentative start in the soft violin solo. The finale had lots of heft lent to its full-ensemble passages, spearheaded by Martin's vigorous, all-defining treatment of the piano part.


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