Today, concerts more often than not come with program titles which are meant to inform and even pique the curiosity of the concertgoer. The Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s program title, “transcendent music I have heard,” puzzled me.
In his accessible program notes that helped ground us, Gabriel Lanfur quotes Debussy, writing about his newly composed Sonata for flute, viola & harp, “The sound of it is not so bad…It is frightfully mournful and I don’t know whether one should laugh or cry…”; and Penderecki. on his Sextet for clarinet, horn, string trio & piano: “We, the composers for the last 30 years, have had to avoid any chords which sound pleasant and any melody because then we were called traitors.” Lanfur also noted that Brahms completed his trio when he was barely 20 years old and revised it completely, 36 years later.
Still mulling over their program title, I noticed the chameleon-like dress of the ensemble, some members formally attired, others casually, and one, frankly, looking a bit disheveled. Approve or not, only a few concertgoers could actually see the chameleons perform at this Beacon Street venue, the living room of an elegant old brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay.
Imperfections and the human condition materialized as well in the performance of the sonata. Not all of the many variegated scraps of nature’s scenes, of dance and celebration melded in the sonata. Moments of ensemble imbalances, overly dramatized passages, and several intonation problems turned the outward bound, or transcendent, journey into a reality. There were beautiful moments of savory colors and delicacies of tone and rhythm. At times, pensive to playful trajectories in this mature Debussy music led to the beyond. Steady rich tones from Deborah Bolden’s flute, Anna Reinersman’s welcome harping on the sublime in Debussy, and the imaginative bowing ventures of Scott Woolweaver kept ears attuned.
More so, a subdued view of the Debussy could have perfectly contrasted the electrically charged sextet of Penderecki. This performance came nearest to being the “transcendent music I heard.” The six Chameleons hit the ground running and never looked back in the Polish composer’s hyper-expressive and virtuosic chamber work.
A study in half steps, virtually every note progresses by the smallest interval of sound possible in “European musical tradition.” Most of us are familiar with the Greek-derived word that describes such melodic progressions—“chromaticism”—a term originally meaning “color.” The sextet is a vast spectrum that includes sequences of half steps in all kinds of shapes and sizes to form the often brash and unharnessed gestures of a contemporary culture.
Both composition and performance seemed meant for each other. For the long, slower second movement, the horn moved into the adjoining hallway to establish a sense of distance. Eli Epstein carried out his part with remarkable precision and uncommon naturalness. Gary Gorczyca’s clarinet shrieked and moaned exactly as the written score needed. On the piano, Gloria Chien brilliantly sustained the wild changes, lasting one half hour. Still more color: a very creepy close to the sextet, much the doing of cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer’s high-register playing. Judging by audience reaction, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble made quite an impact.
After the Debussy and especially Penderecki, the Brahms felt altogether familiar. And just about everything was technically sparkling. The third movement of the trio surpassed boundaries. Together and individually, the Chameleons were completely in sync with the room’s acoustics that, by the way, did not transmit high decibel levels very well, causing transparency to give way to opaqueness (a happening here and there at the concert). A good part of the Adagio, fashioned out of a kind of call and response between piano and strings, features simple scales and brief harmonies. The trio finagled these phrases into long smooth sweeps of tranquility that were most refreshing. Joanna Kurkowicz’s crystal clear intonation countered Rafael Popper-Keizer’s every note nudged to create a fine expressiveness. The supple playing of Gloria Chien lent personality, too. By the last movement, fatigue began to take its toll, in part from the attention-grabbing performances, and in part from the tight, warm room.
From Grove Online: “the intricate textures and continuous motivic variation [of Brahms] were harbingers of 20th-century music…” Could this, perhaps, be a clue to the meaning of the unusual concert title?
David Patterson is professor of Music at University of Massachusetts, Boston.