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Orion Ensemble celebrates the music of Mexico

The OriEnsemble is performing EvanstMay 12.  |   CORNELIA BABBITT PHOTO

The Orion Ensemble is performing in Evanston May 12. | CORNELIA BABBITT PHOTO

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Folk Inspirations
with a Mexican Flair

♦ The Orion Ensemble

♦ Nichols Concert Hall 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston

♦ 7:30 p.m. May 12

♦ $10-$26

♦ (630) 628-9591;

The Orion Ensemble is concluding its 20th anniversary season with a flair. More specifically, “Folk Inspirations with a Mexican Flair.”

That theme is carried out in a program featuring works by two Mexican composers, Manuel Ponce and Arturo Marquez.

The showpiece of the program is the premiere of a commissioned piece by Miguel de la Cerna, a Chicago pianist, conductor and music director who has created jazz arrangements for Oscar Brown, Jr., Dee Alexander and other esteemed performers. “Almas Perdidas” (Lost Souls) is de la Cerna’s second commission for the group; they premiered another piece of his last year.

Kathryne Pirtle, clarinetist for the celebrated five-person ensemble, praised de la Cerna as “a great jazz pianist. He jumped at the opportunity to do some writing for our group. It’s been a wonderful experience to work with him. We got a lot of attention last year and I’m sure this year the same will happen.”

“I have the most tremendous respect for the group,” de la Cerna declared. “Every one of the players is simply fantastic. Individually they’re stars and to hear them play together is fantastic. I’m grateful that they’re playing my music.”

“Almas Perdidas” is based on the experience of the indigenous people of the Americas who died from exposure to germs brought to their shores by European explorers. “I don’t know why I chose this theme,” de la Cerna admitted, insisting that he didn’t have a political motive. “It’s just that there was a whole group of people here who no longer exist,” he said. “I’m not afraid to make a political statement — I’m just not doing it.”

In terms of the music, de la Cerna said that the five-minute piece, “starts very serene and then it comes into a recurring beat that, to me, represents that there was something coming. They had their political system set up, their belief system set up. And then, it was as if we were invaded by aliens and the aliens told us, ‘Your life is no longer true.’ For them, it must have been like spaceship people coming.”

After that, the piece becomes pleading. “Then it goes boom-boom-boom and they die out,” de la Cerna said.

Pirtle is excited about performing Marquez’ piece, “Zarabandeo for Clarinet and Piano.” “It is just a fantastic work,” she said. “It’s got a tremendous amount of rhythm. Marquez is a great composer. I played a piece earlier this year with Elgin Symphony and I fell in love with his music. His work is very creative.”

Violinist Florentina Ramniceanu described “Romantico,” Ponce’s piano trio, as having “a lot of Spanish flair in it but it also has a lot of romanticism. I even hear Chopin in it as we play. It has gorgeous, sweeping melodies for all three instruments. It’s very complexly written, including a complex fugue in the last movement.”

The closing selection will be Johannes Brahms’ “Piano Quartet, Op. 25,” also referred to as one of the “Hamburg Quartets.”

“We paired that with the other pieces because that’s also got a folk influence,” Pirtle said. “It’s also a beloved piece.”

The other members of the Orion Ensemble are Diana Schmück (piano), Judy Stone (cello) and Jennifer Marlas (viola). They will be joined by guest artist violinist-violist Stephen Boe, a faculty member at the Music Institute of Chicago.

“We really have a synergy together,” Pirtle said. “We complement each other’s personalities.”

Myrna Petlicki is a local free-lance writer.

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