Chameleon Arts Ensemble pointed its compass north for its February 4 performance at the Goethe-Institut, focusing on northern European composers and pieces ostensibly influenced by the spirit of these northern places. The concept underlying the program is not a bad one, although we still look askance at the use of themes for programs, a marketer’s construct from the 1980s.
The opening work was certainly representative, at least on the surface. Jean Sibelius’s Four Pieces for Cello and Piano, op. 78, got a robust and unimpeachable performance from cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, with a solid if excessively deferential accompaniment by pianist Christopher Guzman. These pieces, written for either violin or cello, were intended as popular moneymakers, and by and large they avoid the brooding Nordic moods one thinks of as typically Sibelian. It opens with a brief and folkishly sprightly Impromptu, followed by a charming, romantic Romance of the “Melody in F” genre (it’s even in F!), which is sometimes performed as a stand-alone work. Popper-Keizer’s portamento here was admirable, as was the resonance of his lower register. The mood does deepen somewhat for the Religioso movement, with strong depth of feeling imparted by both players. The finale was a most un-Sibelian touch, a “Rigaudon,” to which Popper-Keizer brought as much oomph as the music could tolerate, as well as a few flashes of passion and a very adroitly carried-off passage with rapid alternations of arco and pizzicato.
As is Chameleon’s wont, the program featured both standard rep and newer works. Among the latter was the Welsh-born Hilary Tann’s From the Song of Amergin, a 10-year-old piece for the Debussyan trio of flute, viola and harp, in the persons of Deborah Boldin, Scott Woolweaver and Anna Reinersman, respectively. In five linked sections, this charming neo-tonal work addresses ideas conjured by phrases from the ancient Celtic calendar-alphabet poem for which the piece is named. The central sections feature the individual members of the trio: the harp for “wind on a deep lake,” the viola for “a tear the sun lets fall,” the flute for “a hawk above the cliff.” The music begins with a strongly modal element with occasional bluesy bends, with Boldin bold and Reinersman spooky. The music works wonders pairing the various instruments off as well as highlighting single ones. Boldin and Woolweaver had some wonderful duets, Reinersman had some licks that sounded straight out of Britten, and others that plumbed murky depths. In general, though, we got the sense that Tann wanted the instruments to retain distinct personalities. We were, overall, quite pleased with the piece and the performance, though there were times we felt that Boldin’s contribution could have benefited from greater subtlety of phrasing and tone.
The first half of this rather long program closed with A Voyage to Fair Isle for piano trio (Joanna Kurkowicz, violin, Popper-Keizer, and Guzman) by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. (A note to the program annotator: PMD does not have a compound last name, like Vaughan Williams; and a note to David Elliott, whose radio announcements for BLO’s production of The Lighthouse consistently mispronounce Davies’s last name: it’s said as if it were Davis). This 20-minute one-movement piece dates from 1995 and seeks to capture the flavor of the doughty natives of Fair Isle, a speck of land in the North Sea between Shetland and Orkney, on a latitude just about even with Oslo, Uppsala, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg. Davies does so in a typically oblique way: the piece is based on a plainsong having nothing to do with anything, except that it commemorates the “official” birthday of the Virgin, which also happened to be (a) the day Davies started work on the piece, and (b) his own birthday. As it undoubtedly — not just coincidentally — happened, the tune (we never hear it straight out) contains a nice turn and a rhythm that could stand in satisfactorily for a Scotch snap. All the materials are presented mysteriously in a slow introduction that one can imagine invoking the isolation of this remote and only arduously accessible place; and the rest of the piece, more often slow than fast, is its working out. The effect is like a chorale prelude where you never hear the chorale, unlike, say, Ives’s analogous structures where eventually you hear the principal tune. What Davies does instead is suddenly take his materials and convert them into authentic-sounding (though entirely made up) Scots folk music. This appears unannounced and unprepared after a great many jagged atonal (though by no means unintelligible) episodes, so to our ears it comes off a bit gimmicky. One could, however, discern audible relief from the room-filling audience when it happened. The first such episode was carried principally by Kurkowicz in lusty folk-fiddler style; after an intervening slow passage, the folk element returned in the cello, where Popper-Keizer beautifully evoked the mournful ones of a lone piper, replete with modal chanter against a steady plaintive drone. After this, and a hushed reverential bridge passage, a coda begins that emphasizes the Scotch snap, before fading off to the island’s desolate singularity. The performance by all three players was very strong; an even more passionate one by the work’s dedicatees, the Grieg Trio, has been recorded.
In addition to mixing up musical periods and genres, Chameleon likes to mix up its sonorities, and so the second half began with Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, op. 43, with Boldin joined by Nancy Dimock, oboe, Kelli O’Connor, clarinet, Whitacre Hill, horn, and Margaret Phillips, bassoon. This piece typically ends a program by a wind quintet; it is the most famous one by an arguably Romantic-era composer. And, while the Danish Nielsen sits well, at least on paper with the theme of the program, the actual music — more abstract and neoclassical than Nielsen’s earlier work — is a less compelling addition to the boreal atmospherics of the evening’s plan, with the possible exception of the Danish-modern severity of the first movement’s gestures.
That said, the Chameleon quintet (which, interestingly, performed the work standing) conveyed it with technical precision and a solid sense of how the piece goes. Individuals within the group made some wonderful sounds, notably Dimock, Hill, and Phillips at various places, and as an ensemble the sound blended admirably in the finale’s chorale opening and closing — no mean feat in a wind quintet, where every instrument has a distinct timbre. At other times, as in parts of the first movement, there was shrillness when the flute, oboe and clarinet were all playing in the same register, a problem that might be better laid at Nielsen’s feet than at those of the players. There was also, at times, a balance problem. We approach the latter critique cautiously, as all the players are experienced and well-regarded professionals, and the acoustics of the Goethe-Institut’s concert room are notoriously flaky. Nevertheless, when solo or paired, as in one of the finale’s variations, Hill overwhelmed his companions and the space. Another concern we had was that the performance generally suffered from a lack of subtlety in dynamics and phrasing.
The closer for the evening was a horse of different hue. Kurkowicz and Guzman collaborated in a full-throated and kinetic performance of Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor, op. 45, the last and most popular of Grieg’s violin sonatas, although not perhaps as often played as his cello sonata. Good for you, Chameleon, for programming it. It is, as the Wikipedia article asserts, Grieg’s last attempt at sonata form, and it must be acknowledged that such extended compositional utterances were not, with the early and extraordinary exception of his piano concerto, his long suit. The force of this sonata comes from its grabbing melodies and ingenious harmonization rather than any subtlety in their working out. These, and Grieg’s sheer insistence, create a charged atmosphere that Kurkowicz exploited with fire and bravura and a gorgeous, delicate and über-Romantic sheen in the alla romanza middle movement. Especially in the finale, she swung for the bleachers whenever the opportunity presented itself. Guzman, with occasional and welcome exceptions, remained in the shadows but provided a firm and steady foundation.