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Chameleon from Mozart to Saariaho


The Chameleon Ensemble, led by flutist and Artistic Director Deborah Boldin, has been a fixture in Boston for thirteen years, and after hearing them at the Goethe Institut in Boston last Sunday, I wish them another thirteen years, at least.  Their programs are always an unusually well thought out blend of the classic and contemporary, and their program on February 13 was a stellar example of interesting programming. Hearing the Chameleon’s excellent musicians in the gorgeous room in Boston’s Goethe Institut is a real treat; this is a perfect space for chamber music.

The afternoon opened with the rarely heard but lovely Quatre Visages for  viola & piano, Op. 238, by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), short, tuneful sketches featuring “La Californienne,” “The Wisconsinian,” “La Bruxelloise,” and “La Parisienne.”  Played by violist Scott Woolweaver and the afternoon’s wonderful pianist Gloria Chien, these miniatures were simply delightful, whimsical and sweet.

Steven Stucky’s  (b. 1949) adventurous sextet, Ad Parnassum, was given a terrific performance. Featuring two winds — flute and clarinet, two strings — violin and cello, piano and percussion (the excellent Aaron Trant)  this is one of those “contemporary” pieces that appeals to, and even entrances, those who think they rather not hear “contemporary”  music. Composed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Boston Music Viva in 1998, it’s a piece with legs.  Stucky found his inspiration, and title, in painter Paul Klee’s “Ad Parnassum,” from which  Stucky learned a great deal.

“Above all,” we read in the program notes, “I have tried to learn from Klee how a busy surface, dense with small details, can cohere to produce large, clear shapes, simple but powerful.  This seems to me as valuable an aim in music as it is in art.”  That this perfomance was as excellent as it was is due to a heroic substitute,  Meg  Freivogel, a violinist in the Jupiter Quartet, who jumped in with less than a day’s notice and saved the day with  great playing.  Many cheers for the ensemble, with an extra set of cheers for Ms. Freivogel.

The beloved Mozart “Kegelstatt” Trio K. 498 for clarinet, viola and piano (1786) was given a lovely performance, again by the Chameleon’s terrific pianist Chien (who played beautifully in four of the afternoon’s five performances), violist Woolweaver, and clarinetist Gary Gorczyca.  This is a piece very dear to my heart, and I am glad to report it was played, especially by all three musicians, with beauty and elan.  Listening to Gorczyca, I was repeatedly reminded of the great late clarinetist Harold Wright: this is the highest compliment I can give to a clarinetist. (The trio got its nickname (Kegelstatt can be translated as skittleground or a sort of bowling) because, as the apocryphal tale goes, Mozart was playing a game of skittles, known as “keggles” while composing this piece.)

Next was a newish piece New Gates by the very popular Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952).  It is actually a transcription of a 1996 ballet piece scored for flute, harpsichord, and cello.  In its current incarnation, it is scored for flute, viola, and harp, the ever-popular combination made famous by Claude Debussy, and copied ever since. (I would estimate the number of pieces for this combination in the last twenty years has gone from a few to more than twenty). As the program notes inform us, Saariaho uses “a variety of techniques to color the sound, with the instrumentalists gradually shifting and alternating from one mode of playing to another. They include increasing or decreasing bow pressure, breath tone to normal, and glissandi and pitch bending…. [She] calls on the flutist to whisper French phonemes while blowing over the instrument, a favorite technique of hers.”   This was, I guess, an excellent performance of a piece I really didn’t care for. Saariaho puts her players through their paces, which in her case involves a viola playing on one high string screechingly, the harp trilling all over the harp (done nicely), and the flutist talking into her flute.

Finally, the magical Ravel Piano Trio in a minor (first performed in 1915) was given a stunning performance. Once again, Gloria Chien played the piano part with great panache. The violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, both excellent players, had, I thought, a balance  problem: Kurkowicz’s powerful sound projected more favorably than Popper-Keizer (who plays very nicely indeed), and while her playing is quite sensational, it didn’t blend with the cellist much of the time. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful finish to an outstanding concert.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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