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Timbre Heaven with Chameleons


Janna Baty (file photo)
Janna Baty (file photo)

Chameleon’s “mystic moons and dream music” made for a Saturday evening full of illusion, the only unsuspended realities being the incomparable musicianship on display. Further performance enhancements came as a result of Chameleon’s wise choice of venue, First Church Boston, which served as an ideal transmitter for the ensemble’s interesting and illustrative program.

Chameleon staged three emblematic works of modernism, two of them—and possibly three— cloaked in alternative instrumentation.

Impressionism’s  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune began with the entrancing flute of Artistic Director Deborah Boldin. But it was not a harp, sweeping wind-like across strings that would follow, rather a piano in its guise. As would often occur during the first half of “mystic moons and dream music,” the mind’s musical memory would be challenged.

Primitivism’s Le sacre du printemps began not with the highest octave of a bassoon but rather the mid-range keys of a piano. Recalling the strangeness of viewing a colorized version of an old movie classic, I found myself in somewhat the same conflicted state. The black-and-white sounds from the four-handed piano duo of Elizabeth Schumann and Gloria Chien astounded. These expert musicians ultimately convinced me of this one-time orchestral icon now having become a sensational showcase of pianism.

I could not, no matter how much I tried, however glorious the playing of ten of the finest musicians in Boston, let go of the original sonic imagery of Claude Debussy. While it may be my own inflexibility, I miss that unique gorgeousness of the French master colorist’s ground-breaking score. Less is not always more: To me, encountering Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangement for chamber orchestra, I am afraid, is suggestive of ad hoc school orchestras where you make do with what you have in the way of instrumentation, and that also became a distraction. While interesting, the Schoenberg-Debussy reveals little. Unfortunately, aside perhaps from vague chords gluing the ensemble together, I was at a loss as to being able to identify in its own right, beyond its visual presence, F. Lee Eiseman’s beautiful 1933 Mustel harmonium, which, by the way, continues to tour as one of his contributions to the Boston concert scene.

Expressionism’s Pierrot Lunaire dominated spectacularly on the other side of the program. An overtone of mellifluousness introduced to Arnold Schoenberg’s sprechstimme shifted the 21-song melodrama from an expected hallucinatory bent into another, far more fetching realm. That little bit of honey from vocalist Janna Baty humanized the part just enough to create a most singerly slant to Schoenberg’s vocal part.

sample of Schoeberg's vocal part specifying whre sung and where spoken.
sample of Schoeberg’s vocal part specifying where sung and where spoken.

The mark she and the Chameleons left last night on this pivotal 20th century song cycle is far beyond vintage, earning itself well-deserved praise for a new-fashioned, highly attractive, electric, and “underplayed” Pierrot. Here, vivid color was everywhere holding attention. The usually requisite dark side, that wears thin pretty fast, was thankfully left behind.

Whoever dreamt of Baty as soloist, chose a singer whose informed and informing iterations fit perfectly, symbiotically with the ensemble’s six well-matched performers: Deborah Boldin, flute and piccolo, Gary Gorczyca, clarinet and bass clarinet, Gabriela Diaz, violin, Scott Woolweaver, viola, Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, and Gloria Chien, piano. Credits and acclaims are in order for each and every performer of the Chameleon Arts Ensemble. While much of reality was on hold, the Chameleon’s and First Church Boston’s acoustic summoned up some of the most striking sounds imaginable. Ironically, it was timbre heaven, thanks to Chameleon.

Ed. Note: This is the 201st  review that David Patterson has written for the Intelligencer. We all thank him.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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