The theme of Chameleon Ensemble’s February 6 concert at the Goethe-Institut was “for that transforming touch,” which, given the program of works by Fine, Larsen, Boulez, Sarasate and Brahms, may not have seemed entirely self-evident. As Music Director and ensemble flutist Deborah Boldin explained it to your correspondent, the common thread was the use and manipulation of one or more fixed items of music by the same composer or others. OK, every concert these days has to have a theme; that’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Unifying themes aside, this typically eclectic outing by Chameleon, for whom illuminating eclecticism is its raison d’être, was a mostly satisfying evening.
The opener for the program was Irving Fine’s Partita for Wind Quintet, a 1948 work in the neo-classical style for which Fine is perhaps best remembered today, although like many American composers of his era he was a kind of stylistic nomad. The Partita consists of an introduction, a theme, and a set of movements in mostly Baroque or Classical forms that vary or develop the theme, most obviously its key motif of a falling major second. Chameleon’s wind quintet subset, comprising Ms. Boldin, Nancy Dimock, oboe, Gary Gorczyka, clarinet, Whitacre Hill, horn, and Margaret Phillips, basson, crisply brought out Fine’s white-key dissonances, but suffered a bit from excessive democracy in its voicing.
Libby Larsen is a composer more heard about than heard in these parts, so Chameleon’s performance of her Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII for soprano and piano was welcome in itself. The transformative aspect of this piece was Larsen’s integration of melodies by Dowland and others of his era. The texts, not all of which quite correspond to the work’s title (Jane Seymour is represented by her announcement of the birth of Henry’s desperately sought male heir), and only (!) two of which (for those whose history on this point is a little hazy) reflect actual gallows statements, run to the understandably plaintive. The title text, coming from the doomed Anne Boleyn, is spunky and combative and is set by Larsen in high, fiery style, with hammered repeated notes on the piano in the outer sections framing an alternately nostalgic and recriminatory center. Other musical highlights include a heavily ironic, dissonant and quasi-comical 6/8 march for Anne of Cleves on the occasion of her divorce, and the fine pianistic death knells of the final movement’s tribute to Henry’s penultimate wife, Katherine Howard. (His last wife and ultimate widow, Katherine Parr, received an excused absence from the composer.) This last movement, the dramatic climax, points up the major problem with the work as a whole: the necessarily heavily redacted texts bespeak the kind of first-generation feminism, devoid of context or subtlety, that sits a bit anachronistically on the work’s 2001 composition date. Nonetheless, it was brilliantly performed by soprano Sabrina Learman and pianist Spencer Myer. The vocal settings, Dowland et al. to the contrary notwithstanding, hovered with some exceptions at the intersection of recitative and declamation. Katherine Howard’s repeated statement that she wished she had taken her first fiancé’s advice and married him rather than accept the king’s offer cried out for an ironic wistfulness that the music rather ham-fistedly denied it (and us). So, what we got was a dramatically powerful performance of a musically “meh” work.
A very fine example of a composer reflecting a bit mellowly on earlier militancy came next: Pierre Boulez’s Dérive I for Pierrot ensemble plus vibraphone—Boldin, Gorczyka, Myer, Katherine Winterstein, violin, Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, and Aaron Trant, vibes. This is a 1984-86 revisit to the 1976 Messagequisse and the 1981 Répons, whose joint interstices Boulez explored. The work is based on a hexachord on the musical acronym SACHER, denoting Paul Sacher, the conductor dedicatee of the earlier works, with developmental ideas Boulez did not include in the original pieces. The result was in the most part wonderfully lyrical (special kudos to Gorczkyka’s lovely tone) and layered with great quasi-Ivesian effects like masses of sound (built in part on the reverb from the pianist’s holding the notes of the hexachord silently on undamped strings) abruptly vanishing and leaving just a solo line. The players appeared to be enjoying this piece, and the audience, perhaps to its amazement, did as well.
The closer for the rather lopsided first “half” was Pablo de Sarasate’s Concert Fantasies on Carmen; here the transformative aspect of the concert theme is quite self-evident. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson tells us, was always keen to hear Sarasate perform, and it must have been an amazing show. These riffs on Bizet are not entirely without musical interest—there are some nice contrapuntal touches in the Habanera, for example. But we all know that the main draw here is unbridled virtuosity, opportunities for which the work supplies in dazzling array, as it seeks to compress singers, chorus and orchestra into that tiny package (the accompaniment, sensitively and deferentially supplied by Mr. Myer, frankly doesn’t amount to much most of the time). Itzhak Perlman loves to do these pieces, as you may imagine, and Joanna Kurkowicz scores high marks for entering this ring. She was not gored; she came out victorious, although not without a few bruises—the bull lives to fight another day.
After Schumann invented the piano quintet in 1842, it was a good 22 or so years before any other work in this form could rob it of its primacy; there has not been another since to deprive Brahms’s String Quintet op. 34 of its position. Thus, for any standing chamber ensemble to essay it is both an irresistible challenge and a scary one. Chameleon’s resident quartet grouping—Kurkowicz and Winterstein, Scott Woolweaver, viola, and Popper-Keizer, were joined by guest pianist Myer, to test their mettle in this staple of the “central” repertoire. First, a quick digression to note that Chameleon shoehorns this into its concert theme by noting that it began in two prior attempts, first a string quintet and then a piano duo. Next, a word about Mr. Myer, a young man rapidly making his mark as a peripatetic winner of competitions and awards. As with most of Brahms’s piano writing, the Quintet is not for the faint of heart or the fakers, and Mr. Myer is surely neither of these; he has all the chops he needs, with a few helpings left over. The Chameleon strings come from the top drawer of Boston’s formidable classical freelancers. The result of their collaboration was, in the end, highly satisfying: the first two movements proved oddly tentative, as the players struggled to find each other’s grooves. Came the “little scherzo,” as Brahms characteristically called this excruciatingly intense movement, and everything was perfectly in place; came the finale, and all was sublime—it brought the packed room to its feet.
Now for the quibble: the reason that the best performances of works like this are by groups that have performed with one another day after day, year after year, is that they require an absolutely uniform artistic and technical point of view. A string quartet like the Juilliard, the Budapest, or the Borromeo can bring in an outside soloist and quickly acclimatize because they know one another intimately. These excellent players of Chameleon perform together five times a year and perhaps not as a defined group on each occasion. As individuals they have significant strengths, but they may not all be complementary from the get-go. Mesd. Kurkowicz and Winterstein are violinists in the classic Boston mold: sweet and elegant tone, but somewhat lacking in muscle. Messrs. Woolweaver and Popper-Keizer have beautifully molded and penetrating tone à la New York, pushing the sound front and forward. The result is that without a lot of careful calibration there can be imbalances or stridency if the violins try to compensate on volume. Add to that the complication of an outside pianist and one can see why it took two movements for everyone to get in synch. All of them clearly get the piece and get the style (up to and including the wattle-rattling body English), but for a while they seemed to be getting it differently. We remain grateful that they did get it all together for such a rousing finish.