in: Reviews

March 17, 2013

Chameleon Rewarding in Clever Program

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It is no secret to its many fans that, in its 15th season, Chameleon Arts Ensemble is made up of superb players who play fascinating, cleverly conceived programs. I have heard them five times, and have never been less than impressed by its players’ virtuosity and excellent, engaged chamber music playing. I also love their program notes by Gabriel Langfur.

Saturday night, they performed “a little phrase of eternal song” at First Church in Boston, a program repeated on Sunday at Goethe-Institut Boston. It was an evening of pieces with lots of short movements, topped by the Three Little Pieces by the Hero of Short, Anton Webern.

There was a marked air of anticipation before the concert; almost everyone was reading the program notes. A Chameleon audience is a devoted one, and serious about chamber music. At intermission, people seemed to be discussing the pieces they had just heard. It was very refreshing—and encouraging to witness people who felt so strongly about chamber music.

The evening opened with Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Fairy Tales) for viola (Peter Sulski) and piano (Vivian Chang-Freiheit). In four movements, it was composed in four days in March 1851, after his Cello Concerto and Third Symphony. As Mr. Langfur writes, “Unfortunately it was also the period in which the first signs of his mental illness began to appear.” I have often thought this mental illness shows up in his extremely weak last movement which fizzles out as if Schumann’s mind was elsewhere and he had simply lost interest in the piece. Schumann loved the world of fantasy and these four movements are another example of this kinship with the world of childhood imagination.

Kleine Kammermusik, op. 24, No. 2 by Paul Hindemith is a staple of the woodwind quintet repertoire, and no wonder. In five movements, it gives every player a turn to shine, and is yet another example of Hindemith’s deft craftsmanship and his deep understanding of the workings of each and every instrument. Composed in 1922, it reflects Hindemith’s interest in neo-classical and neo-Baroque forms. The players, Deborah Boldin, flute, Nancy Dimock, oboe, Gary Gorcyca, clarinet, Margaret Phillips, bassoon, and Whitacre Hill, French horn, were all superb. Nancy Dimock’s oboe playing was heavenly, and the other solos were all of high caliber. Who knew one could love Hindemith? That’s how good the performance was.

Flutist Deborah Boldin, also Artistic Director, has a knack of finding new or newish pieces in almost every concert that are real audience pleasers. This concert’s charmer was Helen Grime’s (born 1981) Seven Pierrot Miniatures, commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble for which she took seven poems by Albert Giraud as points of departure. Her aim, she writes, was “to explore the extreme contrasts of the multi-faceted character of Pierrot in a musical setting… with material returning and mutating as the work unfolds. Helen Grimes is certainly a big up and coming composer, having won many prizes and honors before the age of 31, and having had her music played by big British ensembles (she is Scottish but born in England). My favorite of her commissions (the idea of it, that is) is by the BBC Radio 3—Chasing Butterflies for 100 Violas led by the BBCSSO viola section and conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Someone was definitely thinking outside the box with this commission! Grime is a oboist, but there was no oboe in the Miniatures, which featured Deborah Boldin, flute, Gary Gorcyca, clarinet and bass clarinet with a C extension, Joanna Kurkowicz, violin, Peter Sulski, viola, and Rafael Popper-Kaiser, cello, and Vivian Chang-Freiheit, piano. The seven moody movements were rather short and vacillated between dreamy, mysterious, and jazzy. Each player was individually excellent, as was the ensemble. The piece was both quite dramatic and a lot of fun.

Anton Webern’s ultra-short (two and a half minutes) Three Little Pieces, Op. 11 in three lightning quick movements got a lovely reading by Rafael Popper-Keizer and pianist Elizabeth Schumann. Composed two weeks before the beginning of World War I, these Little Pieces, to quote the program notes, “represent the pinnacle of Webern’s work in concentrated form in which melodic materials are pared down to the barest of essentials—at most two, three, four notes. Every sound and every gesture is heard only once, its crystallized essence carrying dramatic, albeit subtle, impact.” It’s one of those Webern pieces that call for a second reading ASAP. A wonderful piece, happy to hear it.

Elizabeth Schumann, winner of multiple awards and prizes, was the pianist for the great Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90,“Dumky” by Antonin Dvořák, along with powerful forces: the brilliant violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer again. I came to music reviewing three years ago, and hearing Mr. Popper-Kaizer has been one of the pleasures of the job. Most concert goers know he is one of the busiest of our freelance players. What strikes me about hearing him (as often as time allows) is the humanity, the very soul behind whatever music he plays. It reminds me about why I fell in love with music in the first place, why I play it, and why I drag myself out to hear live concerts.

The trio, the last of Dvořák’s piano trios, was written at the height of Dvořák’s fame and financial success between November, 1890 and February of 1891.  Dumka is a Ukrainian word with cognates in other Slavic languages that alludes to a folk-ballad with sense of melancholy. Dvořák is the king of Dumka, which he so expertly uses in several other compositions. The piece oscillates between happy dance sections and lachrymose slow parts, all full of a folk music and Czech feel. The three played it for all it was worth; the audience was thrilled. Another great Chameleon concert. I look forward to the remaining two this season, on April 6 and 7 and May 18 and 19. This could easily become a habit.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti

1 Comment

  1. The vehemence of the denunciation of the last movement of the Märchenbilder is a surprise. I thought it was a first- class specimen of a minor Romantic speciality, the Melancholy Lullaby, of which Schumann’s disciple Brahms produced the most famous example. It’s very simple, of course, and not at all ambitious; Schumann told some friends that ” it’s not much, but I think you’ll like it.” He said the same thing to Clara about Träumerei.

    It was indeed a great concert. Chameleon consistently combines intelligently adventurous programming with superb performance. In this case I think there was one flaw in the programming, however. The Webern is an extremely small piece, but not an insubstantial one, and doesn’t really work well as a lead- in to the Dumky trio. It’s like following tiny but sublime entree, Unborn Octopus in Nasturtium Vapor or something like that, with a six-course dessert.

    Comment by SamW — March 19, 2013 at 10:54 pm

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