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Chameleons’ Richly Colored Concert Flung on Canvas


The Chameleon Arts Ensemble presented its last two concerts of the season on Saturday, May 22, and Sunday, May 23, at the Goethe-Institut, Boston. (I heard the first). The program’s title, “. . . flung on canvas like notes divine . . . ,“ from wherever its unidentified sou rce, was a curious one, but it worked well to prepare the audience for the underlying energy and passion of the whole. From Chameleon’s Web site we find the further explanation that, “Composers find inspiration in people, places and things all around them, celebrating the ecstasy of life with portraits in sound.” Although it would have been helpful to see this in the program booklet, nevertheless the program notes by the Ensemble’s managing director Gabriel Langfur were nicely written.

The music of Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967) is new to me, but based on this performance of his Visual Abstract (2002), I would certainly like to hear more. (You may listen to a different performance of this piece in a high-quality stream, by members of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, online here. This complex cultural project was initiated in association with WGBH, but that is another story.) Visual Abstracts comprises three contrasting movements (“Bells—Forwards and Backwards,” “Dome of Heaven,” and “Dance,” for flute (Deborah Boldin), clarinet (Kelli O’Connor), violin (Katherine Winterstein), cello (Rafael Popper-Keizer), piano (Vivian Chang-Freiheit), and percussion (Brian Vogel). Jalbert makes good use of the diverse properties of these instruments in these three “portraits.” Percussion in the first consists only of marimba and one chime, while the composer explores the theoretical palindrome of a tolling bell: “A loud attack followed by a decay—and its sound backwards—a large crescendo followed by an accented note.” Bells do more than begin and end, of course, and much of this movement conveys other flickering sounds resonating in the air. The “Dome of Heaven” is all about mostly quiet spatial effects evoked by sustained, resonating dissonances, so constructed that they seem utterly consonant. “Dance” is a fast piece full of rhythmic dissonance, thanks to the interplay of the drums, piano, and darting winds; even the strings are percussive with their short up/down bows. The whole was superbly performed by these core Chameleons.

I wish I could say the same for Gabriel Fauré’s long song cycle, La Chanson d’Ève, op. 95 (1906-1910), based on his selection and editing of poems published under the same title in 1904 by the Belgian symbolist poet, Charles van Lerberghe (1861 – 1907). The 10 poems begin with Paradis, celebrating the hazy first morning of creation, and continue through various experiences of first delights (words, roses, God and her god in shining light, spring water, twilight, and death). Ève was sung by soprano Sabrina Learman, who has a large, beautiful voice, almost Wagnerian in breadth and depth of pitch. The able pianist for this difficult part was Vivian Chang-Freiheit. But unfortunately the two never captured the delicate shimmering quality that escalates to joyous expression of this magical cycle, nor were most of the words intelligible in spite of the full texts and translations provided.

Gareth Farr’s Taheke (the Maori word for waterfalls) was a stunning virtuosic display on the part of the Chameleon’s Artistic Director and flutist Deborah Boldin and harpist Anna Reinersman. Although the movements are marked Allegro, Andante, and Presto, they are each about a different waterfall in New Zealand, where Gareth is a well-known composer, and thus all are intended to suggest the activity and form of water in different but repeated and changing patterns. As Deborah said afterwards, this is what makes the pieces so difficult — that is, like the music of Steve Reich, you have to be absolutely sure you know where you are all of the time. The form and nature of the pieces can be derived from Gareth’s program note describing each waterfall. But the sheer brilliance and rightness of sound simply must be heard, as they almost defy description.

For the last work, the only one following intermission, the Chameleon’s string players, violinists Joanna Kurkowicz and Katherine Winterstein, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, were joined by violist Marcus Thompson and cellist Joshua Gordon for a rousing performance of Tchaikovsky’s string sextet, Souvenir de Florence, his last chamber work. The long first movement (769 measures), Allegro conspirito went by quickly with its rollicking 3/4 tempo, hammering its 3|1, 3|1, 3|1, over and over again. The Adagio cantabile con moto has some beautiful solo violin passages while the low strings refrain from overpowering them. The Allegretto moderato begins with a plaintive melody that is immediately broken up, passed around, varied, and buried under massive double-stops, before something like it returns. The final Allegro vivace feels like a Russian folk dance that becomes truly boisterous. The score for this work is densely populated with notes that bathe us in heavy string sound, and give the performers a real workout, although several were seen smiling during various passages. Thus a sunny ending to our “portraits in sound.“

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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