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Fine Vocalizations, Some Mediocre Works with Chameleon


Chameleon Arts Ensemble presented their season’s second program, tagged “wordless wondrous things,” at the Goethe-Institut on Saturday evening, November 7. The unifying component of the works performed was that each of the instrumental pieces was, in some way, vocally conceived.  As with many of the Chameleons’ concerts, the program juxtaposed pieces from different periods, featuring performances of Mendelssohn and Schubert alongside 20th-century composers Ester Mägi and Sebastian Currier. Having some of Boston’s most talented and versatile musicians, Chameleon Arts Ensemble delivered performances of the highest caliber. The program seemed to lack any true masterpieces, though, so the final affect of the concert was that of great performers weighed down by mediocre works.

Rafael Popper-Keizer and Gloria Chien opened the concert with Mendelssohn’s Lied ohne Worte (Song Without Words), for cello and piano. This is one of the few of Mendelssohn’s “wordless songs” that was written for piano and instrument by the composer. (Many others were written for solo piano and later arranged for other instruments.) The piece is short and sweet, with some the most expressive and lyrical cello melodies the 19th century has to offer. Popper-Keizer performed the piece with inspiration and emotional relevance, up to the song’s premature ending.

The following two pieces represented the 20th-century component of the concert. While the Currier and the Mägi were stylistically different from each other, they both were quite audience-accessible. Mägi’s Serenade, a trio for flute, violin, and viola provided some interesting interactions between the performers, creating multiple sound-worlds with a nice sense of contrast without the safety net of a piano, but ultimately rambles incoherently from idea to idea with little sense of consistency or development. The piece ended where it started, which merely came off as a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to tie up all of the loose ends in the composition.

Sebastien Currier’s Whispers was by far a more intriguing work, and without doubt the most engaging performance of the evening. The piece, scored for flute, cello, piano, and percussion, constantly toyed with the instrumental expression of typically non-musical vocal sounds. The interpretations of whispers, murmurs, and chatters was cleverly integrated into a satisfying musical form. Percussionist William Manley wonderfully negotiated his role in the small ensemble with careful virtuosity. Pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit and flutist Deborah Boldin also gave noteworthy performances with clarity and intent that can only be achieved by performers unflinchingly comfortable with contemporary music.

Oboist Nancy Dimock and violist Scott Woolweaver joined Chang-Freiheit for August Klughardt’s Schliflieder Reed Songs. The piece is an instrumental interpretation of five Nikolaus Lenau poems, set in the archetype of mid-late Romantic music by a composer whose presence has, in many ways, been subdued by history. Woolweaver and Dimock brought the piece to life with a palpable sense of connection between them, analogous to the character and his lost love in the poems. The piece is beautiful, sometimes to the point of cringing, with such an excess of both Romanticism (the musical) and romanticism (the vernacular) that it’s sometimes difficult to take seriously.

The second half of the program was entirely dedicated to Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major. Joel Pitchon, Rafael Popper-Keizer, and Gloria Chien performed the work with expressive purpose and relentless endurance (which the piece most definitely demands). The Trio, although a late work not performed until after the composer’s death, contains the length and development of a masterpiece, but without the profundity of many of his orchestral works. The piece, despite a marvelous performance, was likely quite tiring to all but the staunchest Schubert enthusiasts.

The Chameleons continue their season in early February, with a promising program of Boulez, Brahms, Larsen, Fine, and Saraste.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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