in: Reviews

March 31, 2012

Edge-of-the Seat Berg, Harbison, Korngold Gems


The concert by Chameleon Arts Ensemble, presented on March 25th at Goethe-Institut (the second of two), fittingly featured much weighty Germanic music — not the usual fare, however. Artistic Director and flutist Deborah Boldin has a particular interest in programming works that “for too long have stood in the shadows,” and the result on this occasion was a varied and substantial offering that certainly engaged the many chamber music fans present.

The salon-like setting — wall sconces, carved wainscoting, a picture window behind the performers framing pink blooms outside on the civic refinement of Beacon Street — certainly contributed to the afternoon’s rhapsodically named theme, “into unison with romantic spirit.” So too did the opening selection, Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor. Though the single-movement piece, a relic of Mahler’s years at the Vienna Conservatory, was treated with as rich and lush a sound as the players could give, it was apparent why this particular work has remained in the shadows. A scarcity of thematic material was its most striking feature, and the opening gesture, with its upward leap and descent, appeared so many times that initial connotations of romantic yearning gave way to a more head-against-the-wall type of frustration. The musicians attacked it with fervor, however, with cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit providing an especially solid and well-blended foundation.

The next piece, Adagio arranged for violin, clarinet, and piano by Berg from his Kammerkonzert, brought both fresh faces and fresh sounds. In contrast to the Mahler, this not-yet-quite-serialist work employed a plethora of intervals, which the three players navigated with wonderful interpretive skill. Gloria Chien’s treatment of the piano part seemed so organic that I would never have guessed it to be an arrangement, and clarinetist Kelli O’Connor gave poignant proof that atonalism and emotion aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. The most winning pyrotechnics, however, belonged to violinist Sean Lee, who crafted his technically monstrous part into a thing of beauty. His skillfully gradated, concentrated sound brought anticipation and direction to the music, giving the twisty lines romantic shape. And when the time came to let loose with a frenetic battery of virtuosic tricks — strings of double stops, false harmonics, col legno, the highest notes possible on the instrument — his concentration and intention never flagged. It was truly an edge-of-the-seat performance.

Harbison’s Book of Hours and Seasons, setting Goethe himself, brought the level of adrenaline down a notch, but this sparely orchestrated work for soprano, flute, cello, and piano proved to be an understated gem. The orchestration brought to my mind, divergently, both Pierrot Lunaire and a Baroque trio sonata, and strangely enough Elizabeth Keusch’s rich voice, expressive without being operatic, helped to effectively merge these two aesthetics in my mind. Simple text-painting was used effectively: the extended, climbing climax at the end of “To the Rising Full Moon,” the subtly changing piano ostinato representing the passage of time in “Always and Everywhere.” Flutist Boldin and cellist Popper-Keizer inhabited their roles with ease, whether accompanying, engaging in dialogue, or philosophizing in the angular and wistful Copland-esque instrumental interlude. The tongue-in-cheek “The Artful makes me anxious” and the alternately sinister and peaceful “At Midnight” brought the concise cycle to a close. The simplicity and evocativeness of these songs was a refreshing palate-cleanser among the density of the surrounding works.

After intermission, oboist Nancy Dimock and Chang-Freiheit performed the best-known work on the program, Schumann’s Drei Romanzen, Op. 94. Their dialogue was gentle, meandering, and sweet — a contemplative performance on the conservative side, with no grand statements or the hints of manic-depressiveness that Schumann often invites.

The last selection brought the elephant in the room to light: Korngold’s Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano Left Hand, op. 23 (1930), a piece of towering difficulty and complexity which Boldin said she had been wanting to program for 10 years. I admit my vague associations with Korngold made me expect something bombastic; bombast there was, but it was unleashed with such inventiveness that I was swept along for the ride. All four players (who gave the impression at times of being an entire orchestra) displayed incredible stamina over the course the lengthy piece; it seemed as if the climactic power of any movement could have served as a finale in itself. I wish I could have had pianist Chien in my sightline, because my attempts at imagining her many grandiose flourishes as rendered by the left hand alone were futile. The opening prelude and fugue were pounded out very kraftig indeed, the rhapsodic piano opening clearly composed to dispel any doubt as to the capabilities of the virtuosic one-armed pianist for whom it was composed. A long, rumbling, and unsettling fugue subject took its time to gain momentum, but instead of building to a mere fortissimo hammering out of the theme (as, for instance, in the Mahler), it evolved into a complex creation, cut through with cross-rhythms and flourishes.

First violinist Lee and cellist Popper-Keizer traded the variable, skittish waltz theme of the second movement, alternately joining Chien and second violinist Katherine Winterstein in the fragmented, neurotic accompaniment. Disembodied intervallic fragments ricocheting around the ensemble invoked Berg, while hints of Viennese gentility hinted at a more gracious milieu; one of the true pleasures of the piece was hearing various influences incorporated into a unique and unusual personal style. A careening scherzo with the juicy heading “Groteske: Moglichst rasch” showed off the ensemble’s rhythmic precision and virtuosity at pizzicato, with the aching chord progressions of the brief trio serving as the eye of the storm. The slow “Lied,” based on Korngold’s own song “Was Du mir bist?” was surprisingly short in comparison to the other movements, but Popper-Keizer’s resonant double stops, Chien’s graciously rolled chords, and the violinists’ heart-on-sleeve vibrato gave it the exotic transience of a hothouse flower. The finale was another massive journey, with a folksongy theme à la Schumann transforming into increasingly fantastic variations. A wonderful lost-in-the-woods moment in which the piano rang out bell-like over the sustained strings preceded the final sprint to the finish.

I greatly admire Boldin and the performers for bringing such an unusual, complex, and fascinating work to our ears with such color and zeal. Chameleon’s last program of the season, to be presented on May 12th and 13th, promises a similarly fascinating program (for a little taste, work titles include A Sinner’s Diary and Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album).

Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor. She currently also is the BMInt intern.

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