IN: Reviews

Chameleon Dares with Lesser Known


It was a warm evening “where light and shade repose” with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble inside First Church in Boston. Saturday evening’s affair with this mélange of outstanding musicians saw more than a few of the concert’s programs turned into fans. Chameleon’s loyal fans often find these programmatic titles intriguing and maybe a way to make sense of, provide direction for an evening’s fare of music.

Hovhaness, Beethoven, Bruckner, and a work by Shih-Hui Chen were so different that it could have seemed, at least for some, more like day and night.

On the sunny side of CAE’s conspiring come the questions, how many of these compositions have you ever heard before, and, if so, how many live performances have you heard? How about you? My answer, not counting Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata: I never before heard Hovhaness’ “Upon Enchanted Ground” or Bruckner’s String Quintet until a few weeks ago, this, to prepare myself for this review. I went to YouTube for both. I could only find a score for the Bruckner, which, I noted, had only been taken out seven times since 1995. As to Shih-Hui Chen’s music, hers is completely new to me.

Watertown’s Alan Hovhaness is familiar to many of us. CAE opened with his Upon Enchanted Ground for flute, cello, harp, and giant tam-tam. During a three-minute plus span, harp and flute first alone are joined by the tam-tam and later with cello. In this brief foray into Hindi type phrases and eastern type immobility lies “repose” and beauty. And that is just what, or nearly so, CAE delivered. While Anna Reinersman’s harp and William Manley’s percussion held to the composer’s spellbound ground, Rafael Popper-Keizer’s cello often was beneath hearing range, and Deborah Boldin’s flute nuances would raise self-consciousness that tended to veer from enchantment.

66 Times: The Voice of Pines and Cedars for soprano and chamber ensemble by Shih-Hui Chen followed. Born in Taiwan in 1962, Chen has lived in the United States since 1982. Since completing her doctorate degree at Boston University, Chen has received significant recognition including a Guggenhiem Fellowship and an American Academy in Rome prize. The title of her work is taken from the last of the four poems: “sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of autumn…only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”

Crafted sonorities, at times striking for their harmonic melds as well as for their instrumental textures, complemented the serial styled voice lines of Chen. Standout soprano Ilana Davidson pinned every note with pure magnificence. Typical of contemporary settings, though, where melisma and newer techniques are present, following the printed word is a must.

Clarinetist Karen O’Connor and violinist Karen Kim along with the Hovhaness players carried out the utterly refined yet somewhat dated score (word-generating instrumental actions as delicate commentaries or dramatic flourishes in a stationary temporality) with utmost sensitivity and knowhow.

As to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major for violin and piano, Op. 24 “Spring,” Gabriel Langur’s program notes serve as a good reminder: “The subtitle came years after his death, as response to the breezy, pastoral images suggested by the themes of the outer movements.” Interestingly, Jessica Lee and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit were not on the same page.

Instead, cold wintry winds roared (too bad they had little effect on cooling us listeners). Their fast and furious tendencies throughout leveled Beethoven’s fashioned classicism, modernizing it as so many of the younger artists do these days. Here, most regrettably, the piano’s hugeness miniaturized the violin.

The entire second half of “where light and shade repose” contained String Quintet in F Major, WAB 112 by Anton Bruckner. The symphonist’s moving to chamber music yields not to simplicity or clarity. Big applause must go to Chameleon Arts Ensemble for “introducing” this work to, I will bet, most of us listeners. The Quintet calls for two violas, played here by Scott Woolweaver and Peter Sulski.

In the Quintet, the five-part textures remain dense over four movements, most of them on the slower side, even the Finale marked Lebhaft bewegt (lively) sooner than later became Langsamer (slower). CAE tried its best at decoding this highly trafficked network. With more rehearsal time together, I could easily imagine these devoted—and courageous—musicians shedding the perfect amount of “light and shade” on Bruckner’s Quintet that would have us all forget an overly warm room. Is it possible, that the symphonist’s chamber composition would prove to be a work worth returning to, after all?

For certain, the educationally enriching value of this program far exceeded the price of a ticket.

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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