Now in its 17th season, Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston has just introduced cabaret-type concerts, called “Up Close.” The first, last Sunday afternoon at the Goethe-Institut Boston, one of their usual venues, featured the brilliant, peripatetic cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer with the equally brilliant pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit. Seated around 20 small tables with the instrumentalists in the middle, 80 attendees were treated to a most memorable performance, also wine and chameleon-shaped cookies baked by Artistic Director Deborah Boldin. Before the afternoon’s four pieces, Boldin spoke briefly, illustrating with short excerpts, to explain how she put the program together and to have us see how the cello became a breakout instrument over the years.
Having won awards for her illuminating programming, Boldin put together works for cello and piano by Richard Strauss, Elliott Carter, Frank Bridge, and Beethoven. I had not heard the first three, but off-the-beaten-path pieces on Chameleon programs are the norm, and trust in Boldin’s programming is always richly rewarded.
Written in 1881, completely revised and then published a couple years later, when Strauss was 19, the difficult Opus 6 Sonata features piano with an orchestral sound that throughout the afternoon was a perfect partner for Popper-Keizer. The doleful, almost funereal second movement was a revelation of gorgeous, soulful cello playing. One doesn’t think of Richard Strauss as a composer of string sonatas, but the writing here seemed unusually idiomatic, at least for cello. The third movement, Allegro vivo, hints at the mischief to come in Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel.
Elliot Carter’s 1948 Sonata for Cello and Piano has become part of the repertoire. While Boldin reminded us that Carter composed 60 works after the age of 90 (he died shortly before he was 104), as a young man he wrote “for the public” in a neoclassic style favored by teacher Nadia Boulanger, but no one seemed interested. So he decided to simply write for himself. She also briefly—no small trick—explained his metric/speed modulations, and how in this Sonata he tries to pry the two instruments apart, assigning “chronometric time” to the piano and “psychological time” to the cello. Carter wrote it when was a young man of 40.
After the brief talk and musical illustration, the two stars treated us to a thrilling performance, which managed to make sensible, often captivating music out of this complex score. Sometimes, the cello and piano battling it out for aural prominence with their very different attacks and rhythms, it felt like sitting at a conservatory in front of two practice rooms whose connecting wall had collapsed. Chang-Freiheit deserves extra applause for navigating the shoals of a knotty piano part, but a huge bravo to both.
Following intermission, the duo played Elégie by Frank Bridge. Written in 1904, it resembles, unsurprisingly, Fauré’s popular Élégie for the same pairing, from 1883. The audience (and I) loved the piece in this dazzling performance.
The best came last, Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, a perennial favorite. Gabriel Langfur’s informative notes reminded us that this sonata’s sketches appeared about the same time as those for the Fifth Symphony, that the master’s middle period was extraordinary even for Beethoven, with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Opus 70 Piano Trios. The performance by the duo was absolutely wonderful, even to someone familiar with every famous recording of Opus 69.
I have raved many times in these pages about Popper-Keizer’s cello playing, and urge anyone who has not heard him, or pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit, to attend the next Chameleon concert, March 28th and 29th. The next “Up Close” will feature two Chameleon pianists, Gloria Chien and Elizabeth Schumann, in a program of four-hand works by Debussy, Steven Stucky, Schubert, and Stravinsky (Rite of Spring) on April 19th.