Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform at International House, 1414 E. 59th St., in a University of Chicago Presents concert on Sunday afternoon, April 16. 

University of Chicago Presents (UCP) filled the assembly hall in International House on Sunday afternoon, April 16, for a chamber music concert given by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This concert was only added to the UCP schedule in March, and proved to be an inspired collaboration by the South Side’s premier music presenter and the esteemed orchestra.

The wind ensemble on the I-House stage, 1414 E. 59th St.,  was made up of Jennifer Gunn (flute), William Welter (oboe), John Bruce Yeh (clarinet), Oto Carillo (horn) and William Buchman (bassoon). The afternoon concert featured familiar music by Mozart and three other works of interest, including the major work on the program, Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet.

Nielsen described this work in his own program notes: “The quintet for winds is one of the composer’s latest works, in which he has attempted to render the characters of the various instruments. At one moment they are all talking at once, at another time they are quite alone … Overall, the piece combines aspects of neo-classicism and modernism.”

The opening bassoon melody was intriguing, and the fragmented repetitions of the theme rendered it mysterious. The players embraced the second theme with its amiable jumps, giving it simple gracefulness. The second movement features charming duets, first with clarinet and bassoon and second with flute and oboe.

The third and final movement is longer than the first two combined and begins with a praeludium (taken from one of the composer’s chorale tunes) played on the English horn with beautiful tone (Welter relinquished his oboe for this section). The variations on this theme are imaginative and sometimes downright fun. The players drew out all the sighs and all the smiles, even in the most complex parts of the score, drawing the audience into the music.

Two Chicago composers were represented on the program: Augusta Read Thomas and Max Raimi. Thomas, who founded and runs the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition at the U. of C., was also the Mead composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1997 to 2006. The emotional high of the afternoon came when, in brief remarks before her composition, she referred to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the U. of C. as the two organizations that mean the most to her. Then the ensemble took on her “Avian Escapades” a re-working of her brass work “Avian Capriccio” written for Axiom Brass.

The three movements of “Avian Escapades” are each named for a different bird: hummingbirds, swans and canaries. I personally never “heard birds” but still found the work engaging and highly interesting. The hummingbird section had electric excitement and the skewed chattering of the delightful be-bop influence was effective. The swan music offered lovely sweeps of sound. The canaries had their own unique jazzy language.

Max Raimi has been a violist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly 40 years, having joined in 1984. He’s also a prolific composer. His “Elegy” for 12 violas, harp, celeste and percussion was performed by the CSO, led by Daniel Barenboim, in 1998. In 2018 Riccardo Muti and the CSO gave the world premiere of his “Three Lisel Mueller Settings” which the CSO commissioned. Raimi is not only seen in concert halls. In 1985 at what was then Comiskey Park the entire viola section of the CSO performed Raimi’s arrangement of the “Star Spangled Banner”.

Raimi’s “Three Interactions for Woodwind Quintet” was not given a composition year in the program but on the Dempster St. Pro Musica website it appears that the world premiere was about a year ago and it was given by these same five musicians. So while we did not know this was we were listening, we in fact had nearly all the advantages of a world premiere plus we had performers who have had this music in their bones for a long enough time to give it deep and thoughtful consideration. 

The performance was indeed committed and persuasive. Raimi’s musical vocabulary is accessible and he has a charming quirkiness in his style. He sprawls out over a certain musical territory and then ranges about exploring ideas. There is a dancing quality in the first movement, an almost faux seriousness in the second. In the final movement the back and forth between players is described by Raimi as “bantering among friends.”

The concert opened with Mozart and Mozart also was the first composer after the intermission. The overtures to “The Magic Flute” and “The Marriage of Figaro” were sparkling little gems in the arrangements of Ioan Dobrinescu. For “Flute” the sound was light and airy, much less substantial than an orchestra. Almost weightless and fluffy, it was sweet musical chocolate mousse. For “Figaro” the arrangement was muscular and the sound remarkably potent. In both cases, the quintet found the joy and the occasional brooding menace, making the music sing.

It was delightful to see the large, appreciative audience, as University of Chicago Presents has had a difficult time regaining its pre-pandemic audience for classical music. Bringing in the big guns — CSO players, Thomas and Raimi — was an inspired move, and there were 30 seats set aside for U. of C. folks also showing their support at the very front of the hall.

University of Chicago Presents brings the Doric String Quartet with Benjamin Grosvenor to Mandel Hall later this month. The April 28 concert features string quartets by Beethoven and Haydn as well as the Piano Quintet by Frank Bridge. Visit ChicagoPresents.uchicago.edu for more information. At the CSO, this week pianist Daniil Trifonov performs with Fabien Gabel conducting music of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Liadov. Visit CSO.org.

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