Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s “bid them dance and bid them sing” comes from Wordsworth’s challenge to Age to join in a spring dance celebrating the uncommon vitality of a particular old woman in whom youth still lives. It requires little stretch to imagine Age as the spirit of classical music, doomed to historical belatedness, and estranged from the popular sphere where there is no anxiety about song and dance. The relationship of classical music to dance in particular can be uncomfortable: the very phrase “dance music” sounds belittling, and composers of ballets have been accused of writing for dance because it gave them leave to be less stringent in their composition (cf. Stravinsky). Even Wagner’s famous description of the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance” has a whiff of condescension about it, coming from a man for whom dance music was no priority.
Chameleon’s concert at First Church Boston on Saturday met this discomfiture head-on, book-ending a handful of unfamiliar works with complicated relationships to dance (and for unusual ensembles to-boot) between more traditional works by Lutosławski and Dvořák that fairly throw themselves into movement.
Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes (1954) for clarinet and piano are five brief pieces based obliquely on folk-song from the composer’s native Poland. Writing during a period of enforced musical conservatism in Communist Europe, Lutosławski still managed to find a personal voice, a post-Bartókian style with crunching harmony and moments of great vigor, even violence. The fast movements of the Preludes are simultaneously rustic and sophisticated, with shifting rhythms that make one’s toe tap in complex configurations; the slow music rocks back and forth almost imperceptibly, but with a buried passion that doesn’t lull. Clarinetist Gary Gorcyzca and pianist Elizabeth Schumann were polished and assured; Gorcyzca’s fluid and suave tone emphasized the playfulness of the music over its demonic character, eliciting laughter at the sudden ends of the rapid movements.
Joseph Phibbs (b. 1970) posits a direct dance influence on his work Flex (2007) for flute, violin, cello and piano: it is a “miniature ‘chamber ballet’… reflecting an underlying sequence of dances.” This is most obvious in those sections that obsess over a pulse or a rhythmic fragment. Constantly reiterated but never repetitive, traded between and ricocheted from one player to another, these moments are anxious and restless but remain at a remove from dance. The slower sections leave overt pulse behind, and as the piece concludes, the work moves towards stasis. The musical structure evolves through changes in tempo, density and instrumentation. The odd ensemble, or perhaps assemblage, was a condition of his commission, and there are few tuttis. Pianist Schumann returned, joined by flutist (and Chameleon artistic director) Deborah Boldin, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and Jessica Lee on violin. Phipps has a strong sense of color, and the players exploited the writing to the fullest: Boldin in particular coaxed a world of color from her flute and piccolo. Popper-Keizer and Lee’s subtly shaded long tones gave to the slow concluding section a compelling timbral interest even as the musical material petered out.
The material in Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor, Op. 39 was originally written in 1924 for dancers, but as the resulting ballet was apparently a failure, the composer repurposed the music for both his Divertimento, Op 43, and this weirdly instrumented quintet (oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass). The six movements are unmistakably Prokofiev, their predominant mood of joy with a hint of malice becoming a bit wearing as the piece went on. Accessible and distracting, the piece has the stereotypical shortcomings of dance music (a bit shallow, a bit pandering) yet is too complicated for dancing. Gorczcya and Lee joined by oboe Nancy Dimock, viola Scott Woolweaver, and double bass Randall Zigler, played with gusto, but too often the oboe and the viola disappeared, buried by the violin and especially the clarinet. Zigler, however, was a revelation. Required to provide the bass foundation for the music, he was also regularly called upon for solo flights, executed with astounding agility and voiced with a beautiful baritone tone without a hint of fog or wooliness. He could also make the instrument bite viciously when needed (this being Prokofiev, that happened often).
I would have thought Andrea Clearfield’s (b. 1960) Three Songs after Poems by Pablo Neruda to be the only piece written for oboe and double bass, but research informs me it’s but one fine example of a genre. The three songs (inspired by “Body of a Woman”, “The Light Wraps You”, and “Every Day You Play”) have different characters: the first evolves out of an ostinato; the second is brief and more spacious; the third playful with a touch of Milhaud in its opening. Each is brief and spare, and none overstays their welcome. They have in common an intimacy that comes from the musical material being constantly and intensely shared, sometimes in strict imitation, sometimes with considerable transformations. Despite all this closeness, the mutual interchanges and slippings past each other, the formal, sober songs without words draw more on the intermittently arch language of Neruda’s poems than from their sweatiness. I felt little dance here, but much gentle movement. After the density of the Prokofiev it was good in this clearer air, to hear Dimock’s melodic readings full of flexibility and subtlety, Zigler’s musicianship equally audible in this music of much greater introspection.
Dance and song returned full-throttle in the closer, Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2, in E-flat Major, Op. 87. Written when the composer was perhaps just in the first grips of Wordsworthian Age, and coming into being when he was at the height of his powers, the quintet is almost over-stuffed with invention, contrast and surprise. Lee, Woolweaver, Popper-Keizer and Schumann gave a powerful account that was emotionally expansive and attentive to the myriad mercurial shifts of tone, timbre and temperament. The musicians gave off an air of being unburdened, even a little unbuttoned: Schumann’s playing, always pearly and responsive, changed color as needed, giving a tone that was almost organ-like in the big ensemble passages in the first movement, rendering the cimbalom-figures in the third in a way that suggested a carillon in a distant carousel. Lee and Popper-Keizer played with a declamatory abandon, a heightened musical speech, and Dvořák’s thoughtful viola writing had an ideal advocate in Woolweaver’s cool, polished and muscular playing. We had to wait nearly an hour and forty-five minutes to return to flat-out dance, but the Dvořák was worth the wait.