We are approaching the one-year mark since the coronavirus pandemic stopped live performances with large audiences in their tracks. Organizations developed new ways of providing concerts or concert-like performances, the most notable development being online streaming. But that was only a part of the solution, since large groups couldn’t rehearse or perform with each other in close proximity. This led to smaller groups becoming the standard bearers for an organization, such as the small ensembles formed out of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members offering chamber concerts. Other groups have released videos of performances recorded before the pandemic.
One small group that has been performing in Hyde Park for decades has created a new kind of pandemic offering. On Sunday the Chicago Ensemble opened its 44th season with a multi-purpose event co-sponsored by International House, where the ensemble has performed in-person for many years.
Chicago Ensemble founder Gerald Rizzer, who also serves as the group’s artistic director and pianist, has created a new sort of streaming event by combining three distinct music-related programs: musical performance, spoken notes on composers and analysis of what is contained in the musical score, and a one-on-one interview with an internationally renowned classical artist. The result was the classical music equivalent of a news magazine as seen on television: lots of varying content packaged in one 90-minute whole.
On the face of it, this seems a large task. Many pre-concert lectures are already 30 minutes to an hour. Interviews with star performers often are events in themselves, typically lasting at least an hour. And the musical content of a typical classical or opera performance is rarely less than an hour and can often last a couple of hours or more. So how does one put all these elements into a single 90-minute program?
One choice Rizzer and the Chicago Ensemble made was to limit the actual music performance section of the event to a single movement of a larger work, for example, the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 5. Rizzer opted for archived previous performances from his ensemble, rather than newly performed music, but even that had a twist that needed attention: the Chicago Ensemble’s archives are audio-only. So what should be the visual on the streaming screen while the music plays? The answer was the charming and useful employment of the actual score, so that listeners could follow the music as it played. While perhaps simple (and obvious to some), it was nonetheless a fine solution to a tiny problem.
The program was entitled “The Classical Period” and highlighted the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The third movement of the Haydn Piano Trio No. 25 in E Minor, Hob. XV:12 featured violinist Stephen Boe, cellist Andrew Snow, and pianist Gerald Rizzer, from an I-House performance from December 2012. The musicians provided fast and frisky playing which was playful. The sound was buoyant and had graceful tempo changes, effective dynamics, and just the right amount of urgency.
Ricardo Castañeda (oboe), Stephen Boe (violin), Paul Vanderwerf (viola), and Andrew Snow (cello) performed the first movement of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet (from a recording made in October of 2011 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago). The oboe had a beautifully smooth, creamy sound and Castañeda delicately pranced through the score, which was rendered by the entire quartet with the sort of sweetness you associated with butterflies flitting among flowers, particularly welcome in the dead of winter. All the players executed the staccato notes as if they were little bubbles of sound, contributing to the airy quality of the music.
The first movement of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor was performed by Mathias Tacke (violin) and Vanderwerf, Snow, and Rizzer at Sherwood Conservatory in 2009. In this archived recording, the piano is light and supple with clear articulation and round phrasing. The strings have splendid cohesion and lovely blend. Tacke has singing tone and easy, pleasing phrasing. One advantage to viewing the score as the music is played is that you can see in advance when a line will begin in the cello, is then passed to the viola, and then to the violin. The string players were superb at making these long, multi-instrument passages both seamless and very pretty.
In November of 2018 at I-House, Tacke, Snow, and Rizzer took on Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2. For this streaming event, the second movement, marked Allegretto, was chosen. The violin sound had the lightness of fairies, the cello was jovial, and the piano both delicate and strong. The intensity was marvelously controlled and the stormy sections contained lots of drama. The same three musicians also took on Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 5 in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, from a recording made at I-House in December of 2012. The first movement featured nice interplay between all three musicians and they used the unusual elements in the score to draw you in.
Before each piece Rizzer offered commentary. His brief biographical comments gave you some chatty perspective — you learned that Haydn and Beethoven could reasonably be described as frenemies — and his discussion of the actual music was pitched at a level that even beginners could understand. Since the Classical period saw the flourishing of the sonata form, Rizzer’s remarks often centered on explaining this in the specific context of the music selected. This was the least successful portion of the event. Rizzer is adept at explaining technical matters to a lay audience, but he seemed ill at ease reading his own notes aloud and his South Sea island backdrop was distracting as the edges of his face were often ghosted or, worse, expanded strangely by the effects of the palm tree backdrop.
The final element of the stream, the interview sections with Mathias Tacke, formerly a member of the Vermeer Quartet, was fascinating. When he first joined the quartet, they would select three programs of music for a year, which he admitted was a light burden compared to many other string quartets. But by the time the Vermeer made their final international tour, they took 23 works with them to perform throughout Japan, which was an incredibly difficult task.
One of the most interesting things Tacke discussed was the decision-making within the quartet. He explained that they did not always use a democratic process. For example, when selecting works to be performed, they learned it was often not a good idea to include a work on their program if one player really opposed it. Tacke said that intensity of feeling mattered, and that they agreed that it was a difficult matter to expect someone to live with a piece for a year or more if he really disliked it.
Along the same line, string quartets must have a unified sound. So some decisions about how to play the music must apply to all of the players. This, he said, exposed “the competition between discipline and freedom.” Discipline requires a single route taken by all the players, so some freedom of expression is lost.
The Chicago Ensemble has four more installments this season, the next one taking place on March 7 at 3 p.m. The program is entitled “German Romantic” and features the music of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and more. Visit thechicagoensemble.org for more information.