On May 21st and 22nd, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, founded in 1998 under the gifted artistic direction of flutist Deborah Boldin, presented a program of chamber music at the Goethe-Institut entitled “from wild spring air” (no capitals); the names of all the composers began with B. No reasons were mentioned for any of this, but perhaps we all just needed a bit of sunshine after a long spring with very little of it. Boldin is known for her unusual, often thematic programs mixing music of all periods with special emphasis on the contemporary, and this was no exception.
The first “B” was Samuel Barber (1910-1981), represented by his Summer Music, op. 31, composed for the Detroit Chamber Music Society in 1956 at the height of his productive career. It has become a standard in the wind quintet repertoire, performed here by Boldin (flute), Nancy Dimock (oboe), Kelli O’Connor (clarinet), Elah Grandel (bassoon), and Whitacre Hill (horn). The piece comprises short sections with changing textures, introduced by the horn paired with the bassoon. Such pairings are an organizing principle, soon joined by “twitterings” from the two high winds, singly, and in pairs. Particularly enchanting was the expressive playing of Dimock, also constantly watching her colleagues for cues. The ensemble playing was indeed exemplary.
The only extant “B” was composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel (b. 1967), whose music has been performed in Boston at least three other times this season. He is known for making music from a multiplicity of genres: those of jazz, rock, gospel, Jerusalem, Ghana, and Brazil. In 2001 he studied with a Bulgarian folk clarinetist, from whence came the inkling for Tied Shifts (2004) for flute (Boldin), clarinet/bass clarinet (O’Connor), violin (Katherine Winterstein), cello (Rafael Popper-Keizer), piano (Esther Ning Yau), and percussion (William Manley). The instrumentation itself suggests pairings (ranges, or winds, strings, piano/percussion), which were evident throughout in ingenious ways, beginning in the first movement with violin+flute. The title refers to the Bulgarian folk practice of tying melodic notes over a bar line, in various compound meters (5/8, 7/8, etc.), so that the meters are obscured. The tied notes are often ornamented with mordents — “rapid alternation of the main note with a subsidiary note a step below” (Grove), which becomes an “obsessively repetitive cell” (composer). The first movement, “Driving, relentless,” makes use of constant repeated notes and phrases to achieve its announced effect. The second, “Rocking gently,” begins with a diatonic hymn for violin, cello, and piano. This becomes overlain with counter melodies in different keys by the flute and clarinet — a simple, but effective, device. Percussion (marimba and xylophone) is often paired with piano, reinforcing or stretching, or echoing. At one point there is a cascade of descending scales falling upon drums. The coda becomes more and more dissonant. All in all, a triumph.
B is for Beethoven (I suppose it couldn’t be avoided, but wish it had), a poor fit. The choice was his Sonata for piano and violin, no. 4, in a minor, op. 23, written in 1800 and dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, a Viennese banker in whose home Beethoven was frequently a guest at the time. It was performed by the brilliant Russian guest pianist, Sergey Schepkin, and Chameleon core member, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz. The piano’s top was raised to the fullest, and the sound of this instrument in the narrow hall most often obscured the violin. Both performers played well, no question, but with the Sonata’s too-fast and exaggerated, contrasting tempi, in a very hot overcrowded, unventilated, room, one was ready for intermission.
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) wrote his Piano Quintet No. 1 over a period of three years (1921-23) while he was serving as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. A big, romantic work, it is dedicated to Harold Bauer and the Lenox Quartet. The title of its three movements, “Agitato,” “Andante mistico,” and “Allegro energico” suggest the ominous, hanging, unresolved feelings that are built up and released throughout the work. There are many virtuosic techniques required, including double stops, and quarter tones among the strings in the first and third movements. According to Gabriel Langfur’s program notes, Bloch “insisted that he was not trying to . . . draw on non-Western music, but rather, to inflect the Western scale system in order to further intensify the enormous range of the emotional material.” Until they read these notes, some in the audience assumed the performance was out of tune. A look at the score makes one appreciate how difficult the quarter-tone notation is to make music of this successfully, particularly when the ensemble includes a piano, which cannot bend notes at all. And it is nearly impossible for the strings to bend together at the rapid rate required. Perhaps the tension among these sounds is what Bloch desired. The performers, Kurkowicz and Winterstein (violins), Scott Woolweaver, (viola), Popper-Keizer (cello), and Schepkin (piano), gave it their all, with intense concentration and expressivity, as long supported melodic lines morphed into even longer ones, without benefit of cadence. An extended coda near the end of the third movement, developed in the major mode with rich harmonies. It was almost overwhelming in its rich sonorities, ultimately resolving all that went before. An enthusiastic audience showered the performers with well-deserved applause.