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Chameleon’s Emotion from Difficult Pieces


The Chameleon Arts Ensemble, with guest artists pianist Sergey Schepkin and soprano Elizabeth Keusch, presented a program entitled “and told in song” on yesterday at Goethe-Institut Boston, a program that featured a bold mix of old and new, from Enescu, Schumann,  and Shostakovich to contemporary works by Robert Sirota and Judith Weir. The unifying theme was the “deeply personal, biographical” nature of the pieces, and both halves of the program ended, in different ways, with overwhelmingly powerful emotion.

George Enescu, widely known for his two Romanian Rhapsodies, composed Impressions d’enfance in 1940, a bleak year for Romania. A set of 10 miniature pieces for violin and piano, it evokes the composer’s earliest memories and forms a virtuoso showpiece for the violin, asking it to imitate, among other things, a bubbling brook and a caged bird. Violinist Joanna Kurkowicz played the opening violin solo,  Ménétrier,  with a nicely dramatic sense of longing, giving it the grandeur of a Bach prelude.  Through the subsequent pieces, which depict a child’s whimsical views of home,  Kurkowicz played in the true spirit of Enescu, by putting virtuosity in service to the interpretation and combining with the sensitive and tender piano of Vivian Chang-Freiheit. It made us hear and see the world through the eyes of a child — and rediscover hidden resources of trust.

Judith Weir had the wonderful idea of exploring the unique and surprisingly rich tradition of Scottish folk music. Sketches from a Bagpiper’s Album for clarinet and piano is a set of three miniature pieces that, in her words, “form a short instrumental opera,” the story of a Jacobite bagpiper who was  captured and executed by the British in 1746.  The first piece, “Salute,” featured angular and forceful clarinet from Gary Gorczyca, with a reinforcing, rather than accompanying, piano played by Chang-Freiheit. “Nocturne” produced a paradoxical effect, with its short, disjointed march, twitchy and nervous. The longer “Lament,” with Gorczyca’s smooth, clean playing and the rippling piano accompaniment, brought the piece to a subtly self-torn, ambivalent rather than melancholy close.

Robert Schumann wrote the song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben in 1840, his so-called Liederjahr, or “year of songs.” It is made up of eight songs based on poems by Adelbert von Chamisso that narrate the inner life of a woman. Soprano Keusch brought a deeply moving, intuitive intelligence to the woman’s story, evoking first her love-struck hopelessness, her surprised delight at being chosen, then the mature happiness of child-bearing and motherhood. The cycle ends with the sudden, overwhelming grief at the loss of the beloved husband. Pianist Schepkin provided more than accompaniment and commentary:  he brought an inexorable feeling of fate and acceptance.

Acceptance is also a core theme in Robert Sirota’s A Sinner’s Diary, nine short pieces forming a sort of musical analogue to ritual confession — a wonderfully deep probing of inner space. They started, Sirota says, as journal entries that unexpectedly “evolved into a kind of conversation between my inner demons and the angels of my better nature.” Constructed as three sets of three pieces, A Sinner’s Diary tells of a religious or a psychological journey of self-doubt, inner suffering, and relief. Yesterday’s performance brought out its full coherence. The angst of the Preface, with William Manley’s frenetic tympani, was followed by a painful “Afterthought I,” succeeded in turn by “Thanksgivings.” The threefold experience was then repeated, inaugurated this time by “Nagging Doubts” with its Orestes-like plague of flies, followed by “Afterthought II,” again marvelously painful and succeeded in turn by the possibility of prayer. The final set brought out the dark core of the sinner’s experience:  a vicious witches’ Sabbath, with Deborah Boldin switching from flute to piccolo. A final Afterthought III, in which the soul was called to and appeased by Boldin’s flute, led to a noble and reconciled “Here may be sung a hymn or anthem.” While the rich, deep viola of Scott Woolweaver and Manley’s contrasting percussion were especially noteworthy, what really emerged was the ensemble effect, which affirmed the inner unity of Sirota’s piece.

Shostakovich started his Piano Trio No. 2 in celebration — by December 1943, Nazism had been all but defeated — but completed it in mourning, following the sudden death of his closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, in February 1944. It is a brilliantly emotional and expansive piece, ranging from the elegiac first movement to the manic allegro, the funereal largo and culminating in the Chagall-like potpourri of the finale. (Shostakovich heard the second theme of the last movement from the artist Solomon Gerschov, a student of Chagall, and in his memoir, Testimony, said of Jewish music “There is almost always laughter through the tears.”) Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer played the fiendishly difficult ethereal opening harmonics with effortless aplomb, followed in canon by Kurkowicz on the violin entering under the cello, then Schepkin on piano with dark, somber block chords. The playing was balanced and spirited, and the three were alertly in synch emotionally throughout, summoning isolated survivors of the war everywhere to join in the great human task of rebuilding life. The scherzo-like second movement allegro was celebratory, but it was also demonic and unbridled, all three players holding nothing back. The lento that followed was a somber lamentation in the strings with a dark, brooding piano, as though music had the power to bear what the human heart cannot. It led directly to the final allegretto, opening with a dance theme in staccato piano and pizzicato strings that led to an eruption of full-throated and defiant dance, tailing off to a final extended cadence in E major. This was not a dance of death, but a dance of life, fully conscious of the horrors of the century, of man’s abomination, but determined to survive and thrive — “Zun mit a regn.”

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years

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