in: Reviews

October 5, 2009

Chameleon Presents Colorful, Inspired Juxtapositions in Season Opener

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The Chameleon Arts Ensemble began their 12th season on a high note; many of them, actually. The concert, “Music and All Silence Held,” took place at the Goethe Institut in Boston’s Back Bay on Saturday, October 3. This intriguing chamber group continued their tradition of creative, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining programming. The Chameleons are dedicated to the integration of the arts into everyday life. They Facebook. They blog. They tweet. They donate tickets to worthy organizations. They present one benefit concert each season. All part of a broad and vibrant outreach program. When it comes to concertizing, however, this unique group of top-drawer musicians prefers the intimate confines of the Goethe Institut. What they lose in concertgoers they gain in the utilization of the perfect space for chamber music. The high-ceilinged room was filled to capacity and featured an interesting visual juxtaposition: a decidedly modern art exhibition consisting of large, abstract panels surrounded by the ornate and exceedingly rococo ornamentation of the room.

The concert opened with Mozart’s lighthearted Duo No. 1 in G Major, K. 423 for violin and viola. Quick background factoid: This work was composed as a favor for Wolfgang’s friend Michael Haydn, younger brother of Franz Joseph. Herr Haydn had been commissioned by the mercurial Archbishop Colloredo to compose a set of six of these duos; unfortunately he fell ill before completing the final two. Wolfgang to the rescue! He quickly conjured up the requisite pieces, which ended up being his only duets for the fairly unusual instrumental combination.

Modern-day adversity: Joanna Kurkowicz, the Chameleon violinist scheduled to perform this work, was sidelined by a hand injury. (We’re assuming she wasn’t hit by a pitch.) Kristopher Tong to the rescue! The Borromeo String Quartet violinist pinch-hit admirably. Mr. Tong’s performance was playful, lyrical, energetic, and expressive, including very animated facial expressions (certainly an extra-base hit). Given his last-minute status, one could forgive the odd unintended squeak here and there. Admittedly, this pairing of instruments took a bit of getting used to, with its relatively high, limited pitch range and, for lack of a better term, ‘stringy’ sound. Not surprisingly, the hyper-talented Mozart was proficient on both violin and viola, with a slight preference for the latter. This predilection by the composer resulted in each instrument being given equal footing, as opposed to relegating the viola to ‘second fiddle’ status. The complex contrapuntal interaction tickled both mind and ear. Violist Scott Woolweaver’s approach was somewhat straightforward and workmanlike, an excellent foil to Tong’s more exuberant interpretation. Only minor shortcoming was a slight lack of overall dynamic range; would have preferred a few more sweetly soft moments in the second movement.

We next hurtled forward in our musical time machine to the early 20th century. Claude Debussy’s Sonata in d minor for cello and piano was the first of a set of six pieces he’d planned to write for various instrumental combinations. Unfortunately, he was only able to complete three before his untimely death from colon cancer at age 55. The deeply expressive, majestic, syncopated, richly sonorous passages of this impressionistic work juxtaposed nicely with the Mozart. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer’s playing was as colorful as his name, and he was more than up to the technically challenging spiccato, pizzicato, and flautando passages. Gloria Chien was a force to be reckoned with on piano: powerful, rock-solid playing that belied her diminutive stature.

Fast-forwarding to the final decade of the 20th century, we were presented with Toru Takemitsu’s And Then I Knew ’Twas Wind, title courtesy of Emily Dickinson, instrumentation (flute/viola/harp) à la Debussy. In fact, the self-taught Takemitsu focused his autodidactic musical studies on two composers, Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen, not coincidentally the authors of the surrounding pieces on the evening’s program. Props to the Chameleon’s artistic director and flutist Deborah Boldin for this enlightening programming juxtaposition! ’Twas Wind is an enigmatic creation; the composer intended the wind in this case to be “… of the natural world and of the soul ….” Meter and tempo fluctuated constantly; this wind did not flow as one might expect. The overall effect was moody, brooding, haunting, pensive, somewhat disjointed — a dark dreamscape that would make appropriate background music for a Twilight Zone episode, and the wind, perhaps, that might blow across the surface of a wintry, forlorn planet. Deborah Boldin’s ethereal and pellucid flute playing juxtaposed effectively with the scratchy sounds required of the viola. Harpist Anna Reinerman created a flowing cascade of shimmery, shapely notes, including some that were fascinatingly bent at all manner of odd auditory angles.

Following an intermission in which the audience escaped the building body heat of the packed room, we were treated to the pièce de résistance: Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Mon dieu! Or, given the venue, mein Gott! This complex, eight-movement piece of music is powerful and moving on a number of levels, not the least of which are the circumstances of its creation: the young Messiaen composed this piece in a prisoner-of-war camp after his capture by the Germans. The musical techniques employed by the composer are a microcosm of those he would use throughout his life: the incorporation of birdsong into melody lines; the heartfelt religious themes of a devout Catholic; tonal color truly appreciated only by fellow synesthetes: Olivier perceived each musical note as a specific hue. [Ed: “The phenomenon in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another ” —- Amer. Herit. Dict.]  Monsieur Messiaen intended the title to refer to the end of orderly, measured time — a double entendre that could be interpreted in either musical or emotional terms, especially given the chaotic surroundings in which it was conceived. Why eight movements? Because on the seventh day God rested; a day which extended into an eighth of timeless eternity. One movement featured a moving juxtaposition of, in the composer’s words, “the abyss of Time with its sadness, its weariness” and birds which “are the opposite of Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs”; another, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus;” a third, “A mingling of rainbows for the Angel who announces the end of Time.”

The instrumentalists handled this profound work with grace and aplomb: clarinetist Gary Gorczyca spun sinuous, limpid melody lines that expressed subtle emotions, including impressively controlled and emotionally charged swoops from pianississimo to fortissimo; Chien was a pianistic dynamo; cellist Popper-Keizer handled the challenge of numerous extended tones in the fifth movement with ease, adding subtle color to avoid the tedium of repetition. And the violinist? Gabriela Diaz, a second pinch-hitter for Joanna Kurkowicz, absolutely hit one out of the park! Her playing featured sterling technique and a kaleidoscopic range of tonal color. All in all, the most convincing, nuanced, colorful, compelling, coherent rendition of this piece I’ve yet heard. (True confession: Prior to this performance, I’d found this challenging music to be emotionally inaccessible.)

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble presents thoughtfully conceived, artfully realized programs of the highest caliber in an appropriately intimate and aesthetically pleasing setting. They strive to make the arts more accessible, donating both tickets and entire concerts to worthy causes. Their next performance is November 7.

Synchronicity: As I was just beginning to pen this review, what should I hear on WGBH? The Ensemble’s rendition of the final movement of the Messiaen. Inspirational!

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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