Recognized as one of Chicago’s finest chamber music groups, the ORION ENSEMBLE is celebrating its 20th season. John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune calls Orion “one of Chicago’s most vibrant, versatile and distinctive ensembles.” With the possibilities inherent in its unique combination of instruments—piano, string trio and clarinet—Orion offers exciting interpretations of standard repertoire, introduces audiences to rarely performed masterpieces and inspires composers with commissions for new works. Orion’s innovative programs feature diverse works by composers ranging from Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to William Bolcom, Chick Corea, Paul Schoenfield and Augusta Read Thomas.
The Orion Ensemble boasts a roster of five superb musicians who have performed throughout North America, Europe and Asia, as an ensemble and individually in solo, orchestral and other chamber music roles. In Chicago, Orion presents a four-concert series in three venues, is heard regularly on the broadcast series “Live from WFMT” and appears frequently on the Chicago Cultural Center’s Lunchbreak Series “Classical Mondays.”
The Orion Ensemble is a nationally recognized and highly acclaimed group of five core musicians dedicated to performing a broad repertoire of chamber music at the highest level. The Ensemble brings world-class concerts to a varied, growing audience in Chicago and to audiences across the nation. Orion is committed to the development of young artists through its summer chamber music program with OPUS and to outreach initiatives and educational master classes.
Orion performs in a variety of venues, and strives to reach a wide range of audience members, from the seasoned music-lover to those who have never had an opportunity to experience chamber music.
The Orion Ensemble is on the roster of the Illinois Arts Council Artstour Program. National and overseas tours are booked through Parsons Artists Management.
Throughout the years, Orion has performed in chamber music series across the U.S., from New York to Florida, from Minnesota to Arizona and throughout the Midwest.
The Orion Ensemble has been Ensemble-in-Residence of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University since 1996.
The Ensemble is also dedicated to developing young musicians and began an ongoing residency in 2007 with OPUS, a summer chamber music camp for pre-college musicians from across metropolitan Chicago held at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. Student chamber groups from OPUS have performed as part of Orion’s concerts at its venue in Geneva, giving these young musicians an inspiring opportunity to grow in their artistry.
The Ensemble programs diverse works ranging from Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to William Bolcom, Chick Corea, Paul Schoenfield, Augusta Read Thomas and other living composers. Orion’s impressive repertoire offers its fortunate audiences a remarkably broad chamber music experience. The Ensemble’s expansive commitment to chamber music embraces the works of the classical through modern standard repertoire as well as an extensive range of new pieces for piano quartet and clarinet. Orion continues to inspire composers with commissions for new works written especially for its unique combination of instruments. As the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein wrote upon Orion’s 10th anniversary, “It seems like only yesterday that a remarkable chamber group of musicians calling itself the Orion Ensemble was born. The Orions … quickly established themselves as one of the Chicago area’s most vibrant, versatile and distinctive ensembles, at home in every period but especially committed to enlarging the repertory of its unusual combination of piano quartet and clarinet.”
Orion received the 2000 CMA/ASCAP “Award for Adventurous Programming ” for its cutting-edge performance series “Inside Look at Contemporary Music Initiative.”
Season 11 (2003-2004)
Concert 1: Mahler, Kritz, Brahms
Concert 2: Schumann, Beethoven, Hindemith
Concert 3: Lutoslawski, Dvorak, Muczynski, Shostakovich
Concert 4: Glinka, Harbison, Danzi, Schoenfield
Season 9 (2001-2002)
Concert 1: Amon, Martinu, Tchaikovsky
Concert 2: Beethoven, Dahl, Strauss
Concert 3: Berry, Saint-Saens, Martin, Berkey, Beethoven
Concert 4: Mozart, Milhaud, Lalliet, Saint-Saens, Labor
Season 8 (2000-2001)
Concert 1: Beethoven, Brahms, Martinu, Turina
Concert 2: Bliss, Copland, Mozart
Concert 3: Pärt, Bliss, Orrego-Salas, Loeffler, Gershwin, Arensky
Concert 4: Bach, Schickele, Mozart, Chausson
Orion was founded in 1992 by musicians Kathryne Pirtle (clarinet), Florentina Ramniceanu (violin) and Diana Schmück (piano) as a performing and presenting ensemble. Musicians Judy Stone (cello) and Jennifer Marlas (viola) joined the Ensemble subsequently, creating a core of five musicians recognized as a major artistic force in chamber music.
The Orion Ensemble achieved 501(c)(3) status in 1993 as it embarked upon its first publicized concert series. Beginning that season, Orion has performed several times annually in live national broadcasts on WFMT-FM. Together with Norm Pellegrini, former director of WFMT, Orion helped to keep the live WFMT series from dissolving early on by finding a funding source for the live broadcast. Orion also regularly performs at Chicago Cultural Center concerts. Through the years, the Ensemble has continually performed premieres of new works, invited collaborations with other artists and sought opportunities for outreach to share its music with new audiences. Upon Orion’s 10th anniversary in 2002, Kathryne Pirtle recalled the Ensemble’s founding years for Joe O’Brien in an article for Network Chicago, stating, “In my mind, I envisioned a group that would be permanent, that would last hopefully for the rest of my life.”
Orion has presented a four-concert subscription series in Chicago and its suburbs since 1993. In its premiere year (1993–1994), Orion Chamber Ensemble began its subscription series in Chicago at the National Shrine of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini and at Fox Valley Unity Church in Batavia, Illinois. During this first season, Orion had musicians Adam Smyla (viola) and Michael Masters (cello) on its roster, in addition to the founders: Kathryne Pirtle (clarinet), Florentina Ramniceanu (violin) and Diana Schmück (piano).
For the second and third seasons, the Chicago venue moved to the Near North Side’s historic Three Arts Club. During this time, the three founding musicians continued the series, using guest violists and cellists to round out the ensemble. Of note was the addition of a young violinist, Rachel Barton (Pine), before she embarked on her successful solo career. Frank Babbit was principal violist for the third season, and current core musician Judy Stone performed her first concerts with Orion as a guest cellist.
In 1996, with the fourth season and the beginning of its residency, Orion moved its Chicago series to Ganz Hall of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. That same year, Judy Stone (cello) and Marlise Klein (viola) were invited to join the ensemble, creating the first enduring core of five musicians.
Orion added a third venue to its annual series in 2001, with Winnetka Presbyterian Church hosting the Sunday afternoon concerts. Marlise Klein played her last year with Orion in 2004–2005 before moving from the Chicago area. In 2005, concerts relocated to the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Hall in Evanston. The addition of the considerable talents of Jennifer Marlas (viola) occurred during the 2005–2006 season.
The Ensemble’s west suburban venue in Batavia remained at the Fox Valley Unity Church for 14 years before moving in 2007 to the Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva. The current series continues with four concerts every season at each of the three venues (Ganz Hall, Nichols Hall and Fox Valley Presbyterian Church) and with five outstanding musicians: Kathryne Pirtle (clarinet), Florentina Ramniceanu (violin), Diana Schmück (piano), Judy Stone (cello) and Jennifer Marlas (viola).
Starting with its first commissioned arrangement in 1993 to an upcoming major work for 2013, Orion has commissioned more than a dozen pieces for its instrumentation, including:
Audiences can hear Orion on the nationally broadcast radio series Live from WFMT, performing from WFMT’s state-of-the-art Daniel and Fay Levin performance studio. This signature live performance and conversation series with host Kerry Frumkin airs on Monday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. in Chicago at 98.7 FM and through live streaming worldwide. The Orion Ensemble has also been featured on Northeastern Illinois University’s Jewelbox Series and on National Public Radio’s Performance Today.
Artist collaborations expand the Ensemble’s repertoire. Renowned musicians who have performed with Orion during the years include:
The Orion Ensemble received first prize in the Festivals category of the 2000 Chamber Music America/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming for its critically acclaimed millennium celebration called An Inside Look at Contemporary Music.
The Ensemble has received numerous rave reviews throughout the years, including several from the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein (“Pride of place must go to the Orion, resident ensemble of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University”) and the Sun-Times’ Wynne Delacoma (“Orion is one of those outstanding chamber ensembles, plentiful in Chicago despite fearsome financial hurdles, that bring so much vitality to the city’s musical scene”). Orion is frequently given advance billing in von Rhein’s “Classical music picks of the week” and as “Critic’s Choice” in the Chicago Reader and is often featured in various online reviews of its concert series.
Composers find the versatility and accomplishments of the individual musicians provide a wonderful platform upon which to write their works. Composer and radio host Peter Schickele, also known also by his alter-ego “PDQ Bach,” has said that “Orion is ...what chamber music should be all about: Individual virtuosity melded into a group personality—their performances are clean, vibrant, and committed.”
Twilight of the Romantics, Orion’s most recent recording on the Cedille label, has received high commendations from online critics around the world, including (from Aaron Green of About.com), “Orion Ensemble plays with remarkable clarity and musicality…The Orion Ensemble is considered one of Chicago’s finest chamber ensembles. After listening to the album it’s not hard to hear why.”
In 2006, the Orion Ensemble recorded two lesser-known romantic-era chamber works by Josef Labor and Walter Rabl on Cedille Records for an album entitled Twilight of the Romantics. As commended by Gramophone, “Both pieces are worthy of performance, especially when taken up by musicians as sensitive and cohesive as those in the Chicago-based Orion Ensemble.” ClassicsToday.com’s David Hurwitz wrote, “The performances by the Orion Ensemble are extremely fine. Balances in mixed ensembles such as this, particularly with a piano involved, always are a bit tricky, but not here. Everything falls naturally into place, and the interpretations are unfailingly lively and stylish.”
The first studio-recorded album of the Orion Ensemble, Made in America, appeared in 2001 amid critical acclaim. “The program obviously was chosen for its stylistic variety, and there isn’t a weak work in the bunch.” (John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune) It features works by Schickele, Read-Thomas, Wintle and Kritz. The album was initiated after the success of Orion’s millennium celebration.
Orion has compiled two additional discs from their live performances, one themed around Mozart and the other entitled Orion and Guests. All CDs are available for purchase.
Orion is indebted to the support of the Illinois Arts Council for its programs. In addition, Orion receives funding from the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation and the ArtsWork Fund for Organizational Development, along with private support from many individual donors.
A previous grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music recognized Orion’s dedication to furthering new and contemporary works. Gifts from anonymous donors have made several major commissions possible.