in: Reviews

September 30, 2014

The Steady Excellence of the Chameleons

by

Rafael Popper-Keizer (file photo)

Rafael Popper-Keizer (file photo)

The opening concert of Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s 17th season gave me cause to reflect on why I have heard and praised them at least nine times in this journal. In my fifth season following this group I have yet to leave a concert feeling less than elated.

Last Saturday night the Chameleons played and sang at First Church in Boston, which apparently lacks air conditioning. Had it not been a sweltering evening, that would not have been a problem, but it must have been tough on the performers. Who would have imagined one of the last nights of September being over 80 humid degrees?

Entitled “music heard above the sway,” the evening, like other Chameleon concerts, featured two very off-the-beaten-path pieces, a British song cycle with violin, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Schubert’s ever, and overly, popular Trout Quintet. Artistic director and (excellent) flutist Deborah Boldin and the ensemble have won two CMA/ASCAP Awards for programming, and merited another for this concert alone. The Chameleons opened their program auspiciously with John Luther Adams’s (born 1953) Dark Wind, a work for the unusual forces of bass clarinet (Gary Gorcyca), vibraphone (William Manley), marimba (Aaron Trant), and piano (Elizabeth Schumann), which I found seductive. Gorcyca gave a stellar performance with long haunting low notes, accompanied by glittering sounds from the two percussion placed on either side, with the piano in back of him making its own ravishing contribution.

Adams writes that “Like most of us, in the days following September 11, 2001, I found myself grappling with troubling questions about the state of the world and the meaning of my life’s work. When I finally found the will to return to my studio, it wasn’t my intention to address these questions directly in music. But as the sub-Arctic winter descended, Dark Wind emerged from my struggle to find some glimmer of light amid the gathering night. As in all of my recent music, it embraces multiple layers of tempo, with each instrument moving in its own independent time and space. Even so, I conceive of the whole ensemble as a single instrument and the entire piece as a single complex sonority.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s wistful, often lugubrious Along the Field for high voice (William Ferguson, tenor) and violin (Karen Kim, also a founding member of the Parker Quartet) consists of eight poems by A.E. Housman. The last time I caught them live was 25 years ago, and there are few performances online. Set so sparely, the music mirrors the aloneness of unrequited love and death. The poems are taken from two collections, A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922). Ferguson sang these mournful songs to expressive and musical perfection. His is a perfect voice for Vaughan Williams, whom he performs often. Balance between voice and violin was excellent in the compelling performance. There is actually a tradition in early 20th-century British vocal music of partnering voice to violin. Holst so set his Opus 35 songs for voice and violin, as did Rebecca Clarke in her 1924 Three Old English Songs. Along the Field was the reason I most wanted to attend this concert, and I was thrilled to hear such an outstanding performance. I thank the Chameleons.

Chameleon’s always superb guest artists and unusually enjoyable notes by Gabriel Langfur deserve notice. Boldin’s exploration of the far corners of the chamber repertoire invariably fascinate. In her notes, she explained that her inspiration came this time from Adams’s work “translating the geophysical phenomena of his home in Alaska into musical sound.” All four works “shimmer with the feeling of place.”

Next up was Japanese-born (1961) composer Karen Tanaka’s nine-minute Invisible Curve for flute (Boldin), violin (Kim), viola (Scott Woolweaver), cello (Raphael Popper-Keizer) and piano (Elizabeth Schumann), described by Boldin as “a rendering of the far reaches of the universe.” Composed 1996-’99, the work was inspired by reading about general relativity: “… my intention was to project the images of the curves of space-time with sound. The fine curves drawn by each note would be analogous to the curve of the whole structure.” The performance was, I suspect, good and committed, but its placement after the Vaughan Williams made it an unwelcome trip into a futuristic place from the Earthly comforts of pastoral Britain.

After intermission came the Trout Quintet. From the opening, tempi seemed a notch faster than the usual, and the result was thrilling, yet still so evocative of the Austrian countryside. Much of the credit for this goes to songful Schumann and equally lyric strings: three from the Tanaka work (Kim, Woolweaver, Popper-Keizer) along with bassist Susan Hagen. Popper-Keizer’s many solos were lovely, and his teamwork with with Hagen was a delight to both hear and watch. Surely one of Boston’s most overworked musicians, Popper-Keizer manages to bring out beauty in every line he plays, and here his colleagues played their best as well. Bravo to all five!

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

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