in: Reviews

November 13, 2011

Chameleon’s Refreshing Out-of-Ordinary Mix

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The second program of the Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s 2011-2012 season, titled “Sounds, Echoes, and Wandering Strains”was performed at the First Church in Boston on Saturday evening, November 12th, and at the Goethe-Institute, Boston, on Sunday afternoon, November 13th. This review is of the November 13th concert.

The program opened with Franz Schubert’s String Trio in B-flat, D471. It was composed in 1816 when Schubert was 19, working as a school assistant but already producing operas, Masses, and numerous lieder as well as symphonies and string quartets. In the midst of all this activity, the trio remained a fragment, abandoned after only the opening Allegro and thirty-nine measures of a second movement were completed. The four movements of a second String Trio, D581, also in B-flat, were composed a year later. Schubert’s early instrumental works were composed for performance by his family and friends. Apparently they also enjoyed playing Joseph Haydn’s trios for violin, viola, and baryton (a now rare form of viol). Certainly there was a distinctly Haydnesque flavor to the lively Allegro of D471, although the development section already showed Schubert’s propensity for extended modulations. The Chameleon players (Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Scott Woolweaver, viola, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello) wisely chose to honor the repeats indicated for both sections (exposition and development plus recapitulation) of the movement, giving us the chance to savor the brief movement in full.

An entirely different ensemble took the stage for Francis Poulenc’s popular Sextuor for piano and wind quintet, composed between 1932 and 1939. Pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit was joined by Deborah Boldin, flute; Nancy Dimock, oboe; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Margaret Phillips, bassoon; and Whitacre Hill, French horn. The first movement, Allegro vivace, opens in jazzy café-concert style; a lyrical interlude features duets and trios for various instruments, followed by a concluding “perpetuum mobile” march. In the second movement, the instruments enter one by one, then join in a lighthearted march. The Finale opened with a sharp burst of sound from all five winds, concluding with sonorous chords. Poulenc well understood the surprising affinity of piano and wind timbres, displayed at their best by this virtuoso ensemble.

Libby Larsen’s Corker for clarinet and percussion was another tour de force, pairing clarinetist Gary Gorczyca in witty dialogue with Mike Williams’s one-man percussion band (drum set, marimba, and xylophone). In fact, the piece is a set of compound dialogues: the contrasting upper and lower registers of the clarinet converse with one another, their melodies punctuated by drums or eerily echoed by marimba or xylophone. In the second section of the piece, the percussion took the lead in a lively  exchange of rhythmic motives. Larsen, who acknowledges the idioms of American vernacular music as her inspiration, writes with an appealing and forthright voice that cannot help but please.

After the intermission we entered a totally different stylistic world with Brahms’s densely romantic piano Quartet in A major, op. 26. Gloria Chien was the pianist, with violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer. Eloquent in many details, the performance was generally convincing, particularly in the second movement, Poco adagio, with its long-breathed melodies and foreboding cello ostinati. In the opening Allegro non troppo, however, a more coordinated flexibility in phrasing and articulation would have helped bring clarity to the complexities of conflicting duple and triple rhythms.

Chameleon is certainly to be commended for its innovative programming: little-known Schubert, less-known Brahms, a popular and tuneful work by Poulenc, and a showpiece for clarinet and percussion in an American idiom — all added up to a refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary mix.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

1 Comment

  1. Minor correction – The clarinetist’s last name is actually Gorczyca. 

    Comment by twangs — November 14, 2011 at 11:13 am

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