Artistic Director Deb Boldin’s programming choices for Chameleon Arts Ensemble have almost always yielded winning combinations of old and new chamber works which inform each other well. Such was not invariably the case on Saturday night at Boston’s First Church. Fresh performances of new pieces by John Woolrich and Dan Welcher sustained our interest and invited re-hearing, while the companion chestnuts were poorly roasted.
Both of the older works on the first half disappointed. Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and piano is a slight, salonish work which requires charm and ease to sell it. Pianist Vivain Chang-Freiheit had the requisite rippling scales and runs, but did not vary her affect enough or project enough to create a performance that was anything more than adequately crafted. Violinist Karen Kim had an unvarying bright tone which she projected with more chops than artistry. The performance was square withal, nothing astonishing or surprising happened, nor did the players make a case for Clara.
By contrast, John Woolrich’s A Cabinet of Curiosities for oboe, bassoon, clarinet, French horn and piano deserved and received a lively, well-inflected performance. Well-chosen for a thematic conceit tied to Robert Schuman’s split personalities and influences, it began with an un-named movement commencing with lively business from an insolent clarinet and a percussive piano, condensing into a long-held note on the horn. A bluesy song without words followed from the bassoon before ending in a haunting chorale from all of the winds. Along the way we had stellar horn playing which beautifully evoked Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Whitacre Hill was steady, burble-less and noble at every pitch and volume. Generally quiet and introspective, Woolrich’s melodic and workmanlike Cabinet is a fine example of Bolden’s ear for the pleasingly new.
Schubert’s String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 581 (probably better to have programmed the composer’s D. 471) is a downer. Little more interesting than a Clementi etude, it seemed a poor example of how Schubert influenced Schumann. It was not helped by Karen Kim’s over-projection; in sum, the players gave little impression of listening-in. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer seemed uncharacteristically throttled, and violist Scott Woolweaver struggled to be heard.
Overheard at the post-concert reception were performer’s complaints about how difficult a space First Church is for performers. While the sound quality is warm and well balanced for the audience, it is apparently not conducive to cooperative ensemble work. From a visual perspective, the lighting is atrocious, as are the sightlines. Note to presenters: Consider risers and replace those annoying unshielded photofloods with some real stage lighting.
While I’m on this rant, how about it, doesn’t Boston, so rich in chamber music, deserve a Wigmore Hall? Well I have news—we have one. Steinert Hall is a jewel box waiting for restoration.
Things got better after intermission. Dan Welcher’s Florestan’s Falcon (A Fantasy After Schumann) really took flight in the lively and engaged soaring of pianist Vivian Choi and flutist Deborah Boldin. It sounded like a new piano had been brought onto the stage for the second half, so outgoing was Choi. She provided the supercharged chase-plane that permitted our closeups of Boldin’s fluttering and gyrating bird, and from both players we got freedom, theatricality and interaction that sounded perfectly right.
Choi also seemed to charge up the string players a bit in Schumann’s beloved Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47. We had bigger-boned sound than in the earlier Schubert, but still without the cooperation and polish that full-time collaborators would employ. And strangely, for these excellent players, the tuning and ensemble were imperfect, even as the playing was more compelling than in the Schubert. Choi played the scherzo like Mendelssonian fairy music. Popper-Keizer made the most of his big tune, but Kim’s turn with it took it down a notch, not producing the requisite juice. Woolweaver could not top Popper-Keizer either. His big solo turn was effortful. The go-for-broke last movement did get something going, but at the cost of clean ensemble. Choi led the race in velocity, flexibility, color and charm, and it was almost enough to compensate for the disappointing string playing.