While most of America was sitting down to the Super Bowl Sunday pre-game show, a good sized crowd went against the grain and instead showed up to the First Church in Boston for Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s second performance of their program “music such as spirits love.” Now in its 15th season, Chameleon presents thematically curated concerts that juxtapose new and old repertoire. This time around works by Leoš Janáček, Fang Man, Thea Musgrave, and Johannes Brahms jostled up against each other on a program about love affairs with unhappy endings. These being, naturally, the most common yet also most interesting kind.
Rafael Popper-Keizer and Gloria Chien opened the program with a strong and richly colored performance of Janáček’s Pohádka for cello and piano. This piece was inspired by poetic vignettes about Prince Ivan and Princess Marya from the poetry of Vasily Zhukovsky. Popper-Keizer used resonant vibrato pizzicati to striking effect in the first movement and across all three movements he and his collaborator proved this work to be an under-appreciated entry in the cello and piano repertoire.
The second work on the program was Larkspur, written between 2004 and 2006 by Man, a Chinese composer who lives in South Carolina. Scored for flute, viola, and harp, it began unpromisingly with a stock East-meets-West pitch bend in the flute, but grew into a puzzling work of some depth. The composer’s program note explains only that “Larkspur represents a flower as well as a color. Fickleness, ardent attachment, levity and lightness have been indicated to describe this world… it symbolizes an open heart and passion.” Yet the piece’s most compelling stretch was a genuinely disturbing middle section characterized by darkly colored obsessive figurations in the harp. The curatorial context of the program would seem to point toward a certain interpretation. But the biggest takeaway from this brief piece was instrumental rather than interpersonal: the harp is a force to be reckoned with. Between Man’s scoring and Ina Zdorovetchi’s skillful playing, the instrument’s upper register provided a dry punctuation to the ensemble’s phrases while the tenor register had a richness rarely heard from plucked strings. There is a whole palette of sounds to be had from this instrument and it can move beyond its stereotyped roles while still sounding idiomatic. Flutist and Chameleon Artistic Director Deborah Boldin and violist Scott Woolweaver were both thoughtful and secure in this performance, but the harp stole the show.
Concluding the first half was Musgrave’s Pierrot Dreaming, a contemporary musical take on a commedia dell’arte plot for clarinet, violin, and piano. This was the most strongly programmatic work on the concert: Pierrot wants Columbine, but Harlequin gets her, and finally Pierrot despairs. The musical depiction is drawn out across eight movements with the violin playing Pierrot, the clarinet Columbine, and the piano Harlequin. It’s all a bit literal, but the plot comes across clearly enough and the generally angular writing gives way to some moments of real beauty. In particular, the piano writing for Harlequin is splashy and luminous through some cogently astringent harmonies. The later movements feel over-extended or perhaps like incidental music to a show. In fact, this piece would benefit from staging or choreography. Nonetheless, the three performers—clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, and once again Chein on piano—brought an appropriately dramatic sensibility simply through their instruments.
Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2 in G sat alone on the second half. Chameleon regulars Kurkowicz, Woolweaver, and Popper-Keizer were joined by violinist Katherine Winterstein, violist Peter Sulski, and cellist Joshua Gordon on the second parts. Brahms composed this sextet shortly after ending his engagement to Agathe von Siebold, the most important love of his life who wasn’t married to Robert Schumann. There is indeed evidence of a self-consciously autobiographical intent in this work but still its connection to the theme of unhappy love affairs is of a more personal, latent, raw, and perhaps uncomfortable variety than the other works on the program. It’s not necessarily clear that Brahms’s life, love, and state of mind provide significant insight into this music in the way that knowledge of the sources does for the others.
Regardless, the performance was excellent and hit almost all the right marks. The Chameleon players and their guests brought a tightness to the ensemble that is sometimes missing in big string chamber music performances and they always kept a sense of direction. Only the beginning of the slow third movement was troubling: Brahms’s strange opening phrase and the later austere descending violin lines can be really beautiful if given the right searching quality. But it felt like the higher voices in this ensemble were searching with their tone and vibrato for the wrong kind of beauty—a romantic quality that’s not actually there. Overall, however, this performance lent clarity to Brahms’s ambitious structure which relies on striking juxtapositions oftentimes within single movements: the unsettled against the sunny, the pastoral against the fiery. It doesn’t really matter whether this is reflective of a tumultuous love—in the end, this sextet just makes you realize that, compared to three other pretty good composers of the past and present, Brahms was working on an entirely different level.