Harpist Ben Melsky to Perform with The Orion Ensemble

The Orion Ensemble, winner of the prestigious Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, welcomes guest harp virtuoso Ben Melsky, a member of the highly acclaimed Ensemble Dal Niente and principal harpist for the Joffrey Ballet and Ann Arbor Symphony, for his Orion debut on a program of 20th century music, "Harp Fantasy." Performances take place at First Baptist Church of Geneva November 22; the Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston November 29; and the PianoForte Studios in downtown Chicago December 2.

The program

Jacques Ibert's Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp (1944) is an example of how a composer can achieve a varied spectrum of sound from only three instruments. The first movement, Allegro tranquillo, features luminous, cascading effects from the three players. The theme is luscious, a texture of layered expressiveness. In this movement, Ibert successfully contrasts energetic writing with more serene, echo effects. The second movement, Andante sostenuto, is perhaps the most striking. The harp begins with a most alluring series of harmonies, answered by a mournful statement from the cello. After the violin enters, all build throughout the movement to express one of Ibert's most moving compositions. The third movement, Scherzando con moto (or, scherzo with motion), brings the piece to an exciting conclusion. Ibert dedicated this work to his daughter, a gifted harpist.

In Fantaisie in A Major for Violin and Harp, Op. 124 (1907), Camille Saint-Saëns opted for an instrument that would express even more lightness than the lightest of touches on the powerful piano--the harp. While the harp was known as a soft and delicate instrument, Saint-Saëns ingeniously provided various combinations of harmonic and rhythmic effects to bring out bold coloration in the harp while maintaining the instrument's legendary sweet and hypnotic tones. In the final movement, Saint-Saëns' love of Spanish music is evident as he increases the tempo and showers the violin with increasingly passionate lines of delicate yet powerful brilliance. A coda recalls earlier themes briefly at the conclusion of this chamber work that is hypnotic in its beauty and awesome in expressive scope.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Six Studies in English Folksong for Clarinet and Harp (1926) include an Adagio, "Lovely on the Water," with mysterious themes and harmonies; Andante sostenuto, "Spurn Point," a dreamy landscape of sound; Larghetto, "Van Dieman's Land," combining yearning minor qualities with major brightness; Lento, "She Borrowed Some of Her Mother's Gold," highly lyrical and warm; Andante tranquillo, "The Lady and the Dragoon," a lyrical ballad; and Allegro vivace, "As I Walked Over London Bridge," animated and delightful in its perpetual motion.

John Ireland's Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1944) demonstrates the composer's fascination with the clarinet's ability to seemingly float on the air with tender sweetness and a purity of tone. This work is said to have been inspired by two sources: first, the Roman poem "Satyricon," which expresses the adventures and misadventures of love, and second, Ireland's frightful and heartbreaking experience of being temporarily evacuated during World War II. This beautiful work is dedicated to Frederick Thurston (1901-53), an English clarinetist of considerable renown, who premiered this work with the composer at the piano in January 1944. English clarinetist Colin Lawson commented that he "had never imagined that clarinet and piano could be combined so satisfactorily; or that (by a mixture of tact and daring) they could form such an exciting ensemble."

Frank Bridge's Phantasie Trio in C Minor for Violin, Cello and Piano (1908) opens with a section featuring two themes, then moves on to a slow and highly expressive second section, an energetic scherzo and a glorious finale featuring developments of earlier themes and climaxing in a glorious conclusion. The work thus combines 19th century emotionalism and 18th century structure, condensed in a breathtakingly intense, brief and beautiful work.

Orion's 2015-16 season

Orion's 2015-16 season, Fantasies and Enchantments, continues with "American Landscape" in March, with music by Berkey, Sowash and Dvorák, and "Musical Enchantments" in May and June, with guest violinist Mathias Tacke and guest violist Stephen Boe performing works by Dvorák, Beach and Brahms. Also during the season, Orion appears on the broadcast series "Live from WFMT" March 28, 2016 at 8 p.m.

The Orion Ensemble
Founded in 1992, The Orion Ensemble, winner of the prestigious Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming for its critically acclaimed millennium celebration "An Inside Look at Contemporary Music," features a roster of four superb musicians--Kathryne Pirtle (clarinet), Florentina Ramniceanu (violin), Diana Schmück (piano) and Judy Stone (cello)--who have performed throughout North America, Europe and Asia, as an ensemble and individually in solo, orchestral and other chamber music roles. The Chicago Tribune called Orion "one of Chicago's most vibrant, versatile and distinctive ensembles," and the Chicago Sun-Times said Orion is "what chamber music should be all about: Individual virtuosity melded into a group personality." The Orion Ensemble is supported in part by grants from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the John R. Halligan Charitable Fund, the Farny R. Wurlitzer Foundation Fund, the Illinois Arts Council and generous donations from its patrons. For a brief history, click here.

Performance and ticket information

The Orion Ensemble's concert program "Harp Fantasy" takes place Sunday, November 22 at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Geneva, 2300 South Street in Geneva; Sunday, November 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Music Institute of Chicago's Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue in Evanston; and Wednesday, December 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pianoforte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Single tickets are $26, $23 for seniors and $10 for students; admission is free for children 12 and younger. A four-ticket flexible subscription provides a 10 percent savings on full-priced tickets. For tickets or more information, call 630-628-9591 or visit orionensemble.org.

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