Chicago Chamber Musicians threw itself a lively 25th anniversary party Thursday night at the Harris Theater. Choosing to look ahead rather than reflect on the past, the ever engaging ensemble programmed four out of five pieces it had never performed previously, and began collaborations with two composers—Paquito D’Rivera and Gabriela Lena Frank—in a program of music from the Caribbean and South America.
The Cuban-born D’Rivera splits his time composing and playing clarinet; he featured prominently on the program, opening the concert with Ladies in White (2010). The piece is a tribute to the mothers, wives, and sisters who commemorate March 18, 2003 by marching in protest against the violent imprisonment of 75 journalists, political dissidents, and activists in Havana. D’Rivera’s colorful writing swings from sad to joyous; his plaintive clarinet opening leads to inventive playing between cello and piano, and a seemingly improvisational passage that is hardly mournful. Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan and pianist Darwin Noguera reveled in the impish style of the composer’s clarinet work.
D’Rivera’s Aires Tropicales (2004) for wind quintet is awash in a Latin lilt that touches on Afro-Cuban, Venezuelan, and American bebop styles. The lush, jazzy harmonies were well suited to the mellow bassoon and English horn pairings, played by Dennis Michel and Michael Henoch, respectively. Gail Williams was particularly notable for her subtle horn; Mary Stolper punctuated the atmosphere with flute outbursts and playful duets with clarinetist Larry Combs.
The program also featured the work of American Gabriela Lena Frank whose eight-movement work, Hilos (2010), depicts her Peruvian heritage. The quartet, scored for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, is a successful blend of musical styles, techniques, and personalities in various combinations for the four instruments. Recalling the geographical and cultural terrain of Peru, the music ranges from the highlands with lusty piano styling from Meng-Chieh Liu, to dances of southern Peru with Asian-tinged melodies and strumming in Ramakrishnan’s cello. Jasmine Lin, one of the city’s most magnetic chamber violinists, seemed to use every bit of her diminutive frame to pull a limitless spectrum of color from her violin, while Combs spun a singing melody over dizzying piano.
CCM rounded out its program with two offerings from Argentina. Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20 (1948) jumps into a gallop, the violins—Karina Canellakis and Lin—leaping to frantic rhythms. The second movement is a focused and quietly tense vivacissimo, played with crackling electricity. The third movement relaxes, though hesitantly, as Canellakis’s violin played through a shroud of long tones from the other three. The raucous extroversion returned for the finale as the foursome embraced the rustic-styled Argentinean dance.
The concert concluded with Ginastera’s contemporary, Ángel Lasala. Where Ginastera achieved fame abroad, however, Lasala is little known. Like Ginastera, Lasala embraced the imagery of his native country, evidenced in his Trio No. 1, Poema de las Serranías (Poem of the Mountains) for clarinet, cello, and piano. D’Rivera returned to the stage and cellist Ramakrishnan saved his most melodious playing for this final work, alternating with the clarinet. The pensive middle movement gave way, fittingly, to D’Rivera in the Fiesta. His clarinet was the life of the party—not surprising with his boyish and warm stage presence.
As CCM enhanced its repertoire with new works, one hopes we have not heard the last from any of these composers; D’Rivera and Frank in particular have given CCM a new and intriguing direction that could prove fruitful in the next few years.