in: Reviews

November 9, 2012

Chameleon Worth a Second Hearing


The Chameleon Arts Ensemble presented a pair of sold-out concerts last weekend in the acoustically rewarding First Church in Boston. The performance I reviewed on Saturday night was so good that I made the effort to buy a ticket for the Sunday reprise in order to hear the Saint-Saëns Piano Quartet again

The Sanctuary at First Church in Boston, designed by Paul Rudolph in 1969, is an angular modern structure built mostly of Rudolph’s eponymous fluted/chiseled concrete blocks. It conveys an incredible intimate feeling, since the balconies wrap directly over much of the central seating, which is gently diagonal, rather than the formally, four-square. No seat in this hall feels far from the performers, and the sound is very similar to that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s (also concrete) Unity Chapel in Oak Park, Illinois.

The 15-year-old Chameleon Art Ensemble takes pride both in its resourceful programming, and its mission to present “the best-known standards to brand-new and lesser-known works.” Last weekend’s concert focused on the latter, with two contemporary (extended) woodwind quintets surrounded by accompanied solo and trio string repertoire. Only one performer, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, played with both the woodwinds and the strings – more of this kind of crossover would have unified the program.

Chameleon is honoring Arnold Schoenberg’s legacy through its season this year, but instead of presenting (yet another local) centenary performance of his Pierrot Lunaire, they featured a work for similar ensemble that made similar demands on the leading soloist, soprano, Ilana Davidson.

Oliver Knussen (1952-) may be best known to Boston music devotees as a conductor (esp. of the London Sinfonietta), and the Head of Contemporary Music Activities at Tanglewood from 1986-1993, but he is also a prolific composer. He studied composition at Tanglewood for several summers and benefitted as a young man from his father’s connection to Benjamin Britten (Stuart Knussen was principal bass in the London Symphony Orchestra and played in several premieres under Britten’s direction). Knussen lives in Snape, Suffolk, which was Britten’s base during one of his most creative periods (Snape Maltings concert hall is the home of the Aldeburgh Festival).

Knussen’s Hums & Songs of Winnie the Pooh owes a lot to Britten’s graceful melodic style, but he makes frequent reference to Pierrot Lunaire through instrumental effects for the vocalist and a rich palette of orchestral effects. Still, why is his Seven Acre Wood so scary? Soprano Ilana Davidson relieved a lot of this musical tension through her effortless delivery and humorous interpretation of the texts. With exceptional control in the high range, she dueled with both the flute and clarinet and blended seamlessly with cello harmonics. Bee Piece gave us a chance to enjoy the honey-like playing of contrabass clarinet player Kelli O’Connor, who featured her silver-plated brass LeBlanc instrument.

Deborah Boldin, who is also the Artistic Director of Chameleon, played a gold flute with a rich tone for this selection. Knussen demanded a wide range of expression from her, including sustained flutter tonguing and virtuosic effects reminiscent of Schoenberg. She and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer created the most stunning single sound of the evening: a repeated motif in the final Cloud Piece seamlessly transformed a single note from flute to cello by underlying the flutter-tongued note with a high cello harmonic on the same pitch. The cello emerged gradually from the flute timbre, capturing the weightlessness of the cloud in Milne’s poem.

Knussen describes his fifteen-minute collection of short vocalises, epigrams, and even single words as a tone poem, rather than a song cycle. The flute, English horn, soprano, and percussionist all stood throughout the work, adding to its sense of coherence, although the audience was incredibly distracted and amused by the balloon and large cardboard box played near the end of the work.

Victoria Bond’s playful woodwind quintet Hot Air (1991) was accompanied by program notes supplied by the composer and publisher. While full of charming phrases and programmatic ideas, the work did not make much sense as a piece of chamber music, but rather presented highlights from an opera based on Gulliver’s Travels from the same period. The first movement featured the mellow and shockingly dulcet tones (esp. when in the highest range) of French horn player Whitacre Hill. This opening scherzo, with flute as concertmaster, combined sonorities you might expect from Rimsky-Korsakov (lots of stacked octatonic chords) with a rising eighth-note theme passed among the other winds. The second seemed inspired by the second movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, in that each instrument entered in a somber, modal fugue, from high flute, to low clarinet, with beautiful quartet playing from the woodwinds. Although the third movement was supposed to evoke the “peace and harmony” of a higher race (of horses), the overlapping dissonances created by heavy stepwise layered melodies was oppressive. Bassoonist Margaret Phillips played with aplomb throughout, and I overheard someone each night whisper to a neighbor, “Was that the bassoon?” after she played a particularly high phrase with clarity and oboe-like tone. Oboist Nancy Dimock was featured in both the Knussen and Bond; her incisive playing brought Bond’s final movement to life.

Mendelssohn wrote his Sonata in C Minor for viola and piano long before any music publisher had dared to present one to the music-buying public (the first to publish a solo viola sonata was Karl Ernst Neumann, who hadn’t even been born when Mendelssohn’s was written in 1822). The music is light and transparent, and was in keeping with the concert’s theme (“First a Childhood, Limitless and Free”). Although the work was not published until 1966, it has become a popular viola feature, probably due to the expansive third movement, which is an extended set of nine variations on a hymn-like tune. Violist Scott Woolweaver played the role of Felix, originally accompanied by his sister Fanny. The third variation (a scherzo duet with a lot of rubato and several odd harmonic moments) and the second movement (Menuetto) gave Woolweaver a chance to show off his mastery of lyrical virtuosity, and his lower tessitura contributions (especially in the fifth variation, in which the viola sustains a dominant pedal through a series of legato quarter notes) was warm and rich, without overpowering the piano melody.

One of the standout performers for the evening was pianist Christopher Guzman, whose flexible and dynamic playing greatly surpassed his role as accompanist. In both the Mendelssohn Viola Sonata and the Saint-Saëns Piano Quartet, some of the most pleasurable moments featured the piano as soloist, allowing the strings to play a supporting role. Mendelssohn either wrote his piano part with Fanny’s taste specifically in mind, or she wrote some of it herself. The fifth, seventh, and ninth variations allow the piano to be heard as a solo instrument, and the sixth contains music almost identical to parts of Fanny’s own Das Jahr (composed in 1841). Early portions of the work show Mendelssohn’s knowledge of Baroque style, and the seventh and eighth movements playfully reference Beethoven, including textures and melodic shapes from the second movement of his Moonlight Sonata.

The second half of the program contrasted two late Romantic chamber works for strings: Charles Ives’s miniature gem Violin Sonata No. 4 “Children’s Day at Camp Meeting” and Camille Saint-Saëns’s demanding Piano Quartet in B-flat major, op. 41. Yura Lee’s violin work brought Ives’s own comments about his work alive: “At the summer Camp Meetings in the Brookside Park, the children (more so the boys) would get marching and shouting the hymns.” The first movement borrows the tune “Old, Old Story” as well as Ives’ father’s “Fugue No. 4 in B,” with later movement featuring the better-known “Jesus Loves Me” and “Nettleton.” Ms. Lee emphasized very long bowing with little rubato for the sometimes-simple hymn tunes; they were more beautifully presented than I have ever heard (even in Ives’ very similar treatment of some of the same in his 101 Songs), and brought tears to the eyes of many listeners.

This sonata also has a playful side, and Mr. Guzman employed a variety of articulations to depict Ives’ memories of those who “would get up and shout or sing – and some of the boys would rush out and throw stones down on the rocks in the river.” More than in other chamber music, the Violin Sonata No. 4 lets us hear how Ives liked to play, both literally and figuratively.

Finally, the Saint-Saëns: maybe the greatest piano quartet of the nineteenth century, maybe the piece that makes the best case for French chamber music at a time when most of the world thought of it as something best left to the Germans. It has no slow movement. It’s better than most symphonies. Sometimes modal, sometimes filled with weird, asymmetrical gestures, it plunges through four exhausting, exhilarating movements to give us Saint-Saëns the virtuoso pianist, Saint-Saëns the lover of gypsy music, and Saint-Saëns as master teacher of Bach’s music. The composer premiered this work with Pablo de Sarasate, Alfred Turban, and Léon Jacquard and Chameleon’s presentation of the work lived up to the standards of those virtuosi. If this is a typical example of what the members of Chameleon can do when they really challenge themselves, you shouldn’t buy one subscription next year, you should buy two.

Laura Stanfield Prichard is a regular pre-concert lecturer for Boston Baroque, the Berkshire Choral Festival, and the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies. She sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and has recently edited eight orchestral scores for Musikproduktion Höflich in Munich.

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