Chameleon Arts Ensemble gave performances of its concert entitled “A Song of Passing Years,” Saturday evening at First Church in Boston, and Sunday afternoon March 23rd at The Goethe-Institut Boston. The following is an account of the Saturday evening performance.
The concert opened appropriately with Sunrise by Charles Ives (1874-1954), written in 1927 (ironically his last composition before succumbing to writer’s block for the rest of his life). Although Ives set many fine poets, both American and English, he also penned his own lyrics and this is one of his gems:
A light low in the east, –
As I lie there, it shows but does not move –
A light- as I thought, forgotten, comes again
The forest world is waking,
A thousand leaves are beginning to gleam.
Later on, as I rise,
It shows through the trees
And light the dark grey rock
And something in the mind,
And brings the quiet day,
And tomorrow – tomorrow –
The light as a thought forgotten comes again –
And with it ever the hope of the New Day.
This song was performed by Rachel Calloway, mezzo-soprano, Tessa Lark, violin, and Vivian Chang-Freiheit, piano. Lark’s tonally sweet entrance, and the remarkable shimmer of Vivian Chang-Freiheit’s accompaniment perfectly set the atmospheric elements of this piece, but as an introduction to Calloway’s voice, her vocal technique, her sensitivity to ensemble and musicianship were all impeccable, but her word painting left something to be desired. Calloway’s instrument is a very full, operatic (young, not wobbly), mezzo-soprano whose singing credentials indicate considerable experience as a song recitalist, but the heaviness and the operatic exactitude of her vocal approach instilled a longing in this reviewer for an age when the likes of small but expressive voices could make a financial go of a career specializing exclusively as recitalists. Perhaps this is harsh criticism for a fine singer, but the instrument simply felt too heavy for this repertoire, and this listener failed to ‘see the sun rise.’
Ives was followed by one of Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) most familiar and beloved sonatas, written at the peak of his compositional maturity, Sonata No. 1 in F Minor for clarinet and piano, Op. 120. (1893). Often, such a piece is thrown into a contemporary music concert (a relative term these days) as ‘ear candy’ for the audience, but here it was simply offered (and honored) as flavorful programming, where it snuggled quite cozily between its twentieth century companions. Vivian Chang-Freiheit’s piano playing was soulful, passionate, playful, delicate, and her sense of ensemble brilliant. Yet, these elements seemed to be lacking in Gary Gorczyca’s proficient intonation, accurate rhythm, and highly competent technical execution. His overall interpretation was too heavy. This piece is collegiate ‘meat and potatoes’ to a clarinetist, and yes, Brahms was German and led an inhibited life, and this piece was composed toward the end of it, but in its melodies and musical conversation, they still brim over with passionate rapture and childlike playfulness and wonder. It seemed as if the personality of the clarinetist could not grasp Brahms’s soulful rapture in his allegro appassionato that tugs and pulls the melody through and over a complete arc, or the impish joyfulness in the allegretto grazioso that engages in playful exchange with the piano. The vivace also suffered from a lack of buoyancy; for Gorczyca’s fiery enthusiasm, although rhythmically vivacious, tended to approach the attacks a little too aggressively. The loveliest of all movements was the andante, un poco adagio, which he played with gentle lyricism and musical sensitivity. Overall, the ensemble was perfect, but somehow the magical woodland sprite waiting to be found was never fully invoked and coaxed out to play.
Rachel Calloway and Vivian Chang-Freiheit returned with Deborah Boldin, flutist, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cellist to perform a very fine rendition of Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) masterpiece, Chanson Madécasse (1925-6), set to the poetry of Évariste-Désiré de Forges, Vicomte de Parny (1753-1814). In this song set, Calloway’s timbre added to its richness and beauty, but there was still something lacking in her feel for the French style, particularly its sensuality and eroticism. Her French was good, and again, the ensemble chemistry was outstanding, but it wasn’t until the second song, Méfiez-vous des blancs (Beware of the White Men) that the listener was given insight into why this singer was drawn to perform this set. Her fiery passion was well suited to this empathic yet politically provocative portrait of one culture swallowing another from a presumed place of racial superiority. Although the text was feigned by a white poet who had never set foot in Madagascar, it possesses insight compelling to a modern American audience, and clearly deeply compelling to this singer.
The second half of the concert opened with Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) An Interrupted Endless Melody (1991) in three movements I, II, and III, beautifully performed by oboist Nancy Dimock and pianist Vivian Choi (different pianist from Vivian Chang-Freiheit). The principle and structure behind this piece is best articulated in Gabriel Langfur’s program notes:
…Birtwistle gives the performers an unusual amount of latitude to make choices about the structure. The oboe melody can begin at any of three points, and the player is free to observe or ignore a number of repeat indications; the line could theoretically continue forever. The pianist can choose from three different accompaniments and play them in any order. The effect of the piece, therefore, can vary significantly from one performance to another, but it generally gives a sense of timelessness, as if the listeners have happened in on an event that began long ago and will continue for a long time to come.
The effect produced in Saturday’s performance was an extended tone in the oboe with a notably sweet, expressive quality and a sense of lyricism, but only one or two notes, while the piano would emulate a kind of plucking. There was a clean sense of ensemble between them that was seemingly instinctual rather than to be found in detail on the printed page. And each movement felt like a continuation from where the last movement left off, as if each break were a lull in an ongoing conversation.
The finale, Piano Quartet No. 2 in d minor, Op. 30 by Georges Enescu (1881-1955), which Artistic Director Deborah Boldin described as “… a supreme masterpiece that deserves to be better known and much more often heard,” was spectacular. At various segments of the concert, these superb ensemble musicians could be heard bringing out melodic phrases. This was a chance to really tune into them and hear their exquisite playing. The musicians were Tessa Lark, violin, Scott Woolweaver, viola, Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, and Vivian Choi on the piano. Each instrumentalist was extraordinarily sensitive to one another, with a supreme sense of when to bring out a line and allow it to sing with full-bodied tone quality. But the rock of the ensemble shouldering the responsibility of holding everything rhythmically together was the pianist, and she did so with impressive musicianship. This composition, written during hard times between July 1943 and May 1944, was in dedication to Enescu’s teacher Gabriel Fauré and is quite romantic. It is described in the program notes as achieving a “…seemingly free, improvisational quality by writing a score full of incredibly detailed instructions, fully capturing the spirit of Romanian folk music and yet also rich in contrapuntal complexity.” The effect was an atmospheric wash of something between French impressionism and hints of Rachmaninoff-like runs and Romanian rhythms, with stunning textures and colors, and a fiery ending.
Chameleon prides itself upon being both innovative and versatile, but more pointedly, artful in its programming; and indeed this particular program was artfully imagined. It should also be noted that Gabriel Langfur’s biographical accounts of composers in the program notes are unique, as they are not merely intellectually reverential, but lovingly insightful in a way that brings the composers’ humanity and that of their music warmly to life. Clearly there is an ethic within this ensemble that regardless of the potential for jadedness in the practice room, keeping the element of adventure alive in these programs provides a place for a professional musician to continue to explore music not just as a sophisticated craft, but as a labor of love.