With a characteristically varied and well-conceived program, Chameleon Arts Ensemble opened their concert season on October 1 at First Church in Boston with a program entitled “From the realm of light and song.” Featuring Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs, Christopher Rouse’s Compline, and Beethoven’s Trio No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 97, “Archduke,” the concert successfully served Chameleon’s aim to “integrate old and new repertoire into unexpected chamber music programs that are themselves works of art.” Moving away from the model of chronological progression, nesting the most recent work, Rouse’s Compline, between Barber and Beethoven was an excellent choice — not just because Beethoven’s work merits the last word, so to speak, but because it gave more meditative weight to Rouse’s work, particularly following Barber’s musings upon medieval hermitage.
Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty and pianist Gloria Chien offered a sensitive and passionate rendering of the 1953 Hermit Songs. Baty sang with a particularly effective intensity in the “Wiegenlied” of the set, “St. Ita’s Vision.” Her lower range seemed full of possibility, including the haunting moments in “The Crucifixion,” although it was sometimes over-laden with heavy vibrato. Chien’s collaboration on the piano was sublime, as she pulled an endless variety of textures and tones from the instrument, weaving them in and out of the vocal line. The pair had a good sense of the structure of Barber’s cycle, and while I found “The Heavenly Banquet” a bit too dramatically overwrought, Baty’s subtle treatment of the enigmatic couplet, “Promiscuity,” was convincing. These two lines can provide a tremendous challenge for a singer without stage presence, as it is completely reliant upon the musicians to carry the implications of the text — “I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,/ but I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone” — that, even though it hails from the 9th century, seems curiously out of place with the other songs. To be sure, Baty and Chien both emphasized the subtext, and it provided a good emotional pivot for the last three songs in the cycle. The tenth and final song, “The Desire for Hermitage” is the one that links back to Barber’s biography and certainly describes the composer’s preference for solitude when composing his music. He ends his Hermit Songs with what is perhaps the most poignant text of the entire work: “Alone I came into the world, alone I shall go from it.” The delivery of this final moment can make or break the performance, and Baty delivered her most gorgeous and reverent tone of the evening here, supported by the mystical and meditative reverie that Chien conjured throughout the final piece.
Christopher Rouse’s Compline, from 1996, was the perfect complement to the Barber. The ensemble, featuring Deborah Boldin (flute), Kelli O’Connor (clarinet), Joanna Kurkowicz (violin), Gabriela Diaz (violin), Scott Wooleaver (viola), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), and Anna Reinersman (harp), played with incredible musicality and technical mastery. Rouse’s piece, although it refers to the last of the canonical Hours, contains a sense of religiosity that, as Rouse says, “is more observational than participatory.” A reminiscence of a 1989 trip to Rome, the work is a study in rhythmic and timbral interplay, dividing the ensemble into a string section and winds with harp. The bells of Compline are there but are not cliché or even rhetorical, instead part and parcel of the textural fabric, underlying the vivacious rhythmic ostinato first heard in the violins, viola and cello. This work highlighted the extraordinary ensemble playing of Kurkowicz, Diaz, Wooleaver, and Popper-Keizer, who played as a single entity, providing a constant rhythmic drive underneath the bright winds of Boldin and O’Connor.
One of the most marvelous moments of the piece — and there are many — is when Rouse creates a spatial effect during a homophonic section with long bowing, passing the music from the winds and harp over to the strings. The ensemble was seamless in its ability to create its own Klangfarbenmelodie, deftly creating continuous lyricism over the different timbres of each instrument’s portion of the melody. The entire ensemble was sensitive to the fluctuations in musical energy that the work requires, and this was most evident in the return of the opening elements of the piece, wherein the main rhythmic motive is tossed from instrument to instrument and then phased into a dramatic tutti declamation. Toward the end of the work, the passage of quiet stillness based on sustained tones demonstrated that these are musicians who know what it is to listen collaboratively, and the overall impact of this moment was startlingly moving — so much so that I partially wished Rouse would have ended the work with it. I could not resent the coda, however, with its slow-moving Baroque harmonic progressions leading into a unison homage to chant, that brought back the bells of Compline in the winds. The work is one I hope to hear again, and I can think of no better ensemble to play it than those who were on stage last night.
For a night so injected with reflective spirituality, Beethoven’s Trio No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 97, was the perfect finish. The “Archduke” Trio, so-named for Beethoven’s famous patron, Archduke Rudolph, has one of the most beautiful slow movements in all of chamber music literature, presaging the pathos of the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” in Op. 132. The only element of the performance I found less than superb was the sound of the piano, particularly in the opening movement. I don’t know if it was merely the acoustics at First Church, having the piano lid completely open, or heavy pedaling on the part of Chien, but the piano had an echoing and almost muddy quality to it that I didn’t hear during the Barber songs. Strangely, the sound was better suited to the third movement, when it did not detract from Beethoven’s scoring. Acoustic issues notwithstanding, Chien’s playing was remarkable, demonstrating for the second time that night that she is an amazingly sensitive collaborator and ensemble player. The balance of dynamics in the first movement Allegro moderato was astonishing, heard clearly in Popper-Keiser’s most understated and beautiful pianissimos that danced with Kurkowicz’s glistening lines. The Scherzo movement, with its haunting and relatively obscure trio theme, suffered only the mildest intonation issues, and was whimsical without being flippant in the scherzo. All three performers had stellar rhythmic articulation, keeping the energy high, but clearly acknowledging that it was an inner movement, not a finale. The slow movement was tender and gorgeous, with highly nuanced playing, particularly on the part of Chien and Popper-Keiser. The trio never let the lighter sections of the music destroy the overall pathos of the Andante, and the transition into the finale Allegro moderato was a phenomenal moment of musical finesse. The trio did not rush this movement, keeping the tempo in check relative to the Presto yet to come, and always playful and tuneful, even amongst the flurry of notes. Saving the best for last, the Presto that closes out the movement was virtuosic and celebratory, embodying the indisputable musicianship and talent of the three performers.
Chameleon Arts Ensemble should feel confident in its concept and the execution of its programming. My guest, a first time Chameleon attendee, enthusiastically said he’d come to see them again. Last night’s concert demonstrated how relevant both old and new chamber music can be in these days of uncertainty for performing arts organizations, and I am hopeful that Boston’s audiences will nurture and support such creative and quality performances.
Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.