The Chameleon Arts Ensemble gave another characteristically thoughtful concert Saturday at the First Church of Boston. There was the typical mix of works you expect from Chameleon: a roughly even distribution of new pieces and of those that are lesser known, anchored by a major work. There was, of course, a theme: “words and phrases found”, as the works all had some relationship to texts, though none set any words explicitly. I’ve come to expect Chameleon concerts to be intellectually engaging, if impossible to summarize. Such is the case here.
The new work consisted of two dramatically different pieces by composers at opposite ends of their careers. Axioms is a catalog of instrumental ingenuity by Clint Needham (b. 1981), a well-commissioned composer who has already collected a significant number of compositions awards. It consists of seven brief, powerfully characterized, almost cinematic movements each based on a fragment of a proverb. Needham scored it for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion, a palette that he clearly knows how to exploit to its fullest. The orchestration was what was on display here: “Music hath charms…” a cascade of bright colors; “Still waters…” a glassy, dark chorale of glissandi in strings, flute and clarinet; “There is no supreme beauty…” a knotty, gristly chunk of music that occasionally erupted in shrieks. Needham’s materials fall easily on the ear, and their transformations are easy to follow while still capable of surprise. The work is spectacular but a bit slight; it encourages one to seek out Needham’s larger work (he has been a composer-in-residence with the Albany Symphony twice) to see how his vivid sense of color sustains itself over time.
My first attempt to pay close attention to the music of my own time was to seek out the recording of Bernard Rands’ 1984 Pulitzer-winning work Canti del Sole when it first came out. I found it admirable but unmoving, and subsequent encounters with his music have struck me the same way. So it was with the other new work this evening, Rands’ Prelude …sans voix parmi les voix…, two movements from a projected four-movement work for flute, viola and harp. Rands turned 80 in 2014 amid much celebration, and he continues to compose apace. Flutist Deborah Boldin, violist Scott Woolweaver and harpist Franziska Huhn played beautifully and there was much to admire in Rands’s confident handling of this unusual grouping: attractive moments of crystalline ensemble, and several extended soliloquies whose strong central logic nevertheless remained at an emotional distance. The second movement is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s early poem que ferais-je sans ce monde (what would I do without this wordl), and the title comes from the line Beckett translated as “among the voices voiceless,” but I couldn’t detect any strong connection to the Beckett work save a certain forlornness of expression.
The less-traveled portion of the evening was made up of Janáček’s Violin Sonata and Stravinsky’s Suite from L’Histoire de Soldat. Janáček’s alternately savage and sweet sonata was played by Eunae Koh on violin with pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit. The duo was best in those moments in the outer movements and the slow movement where Janáček invokes Brahms, as Chang-Freiheit’s weighty velvet tone predominated throughout. Those passages of tender emotion were meltingly beautiful, and could have been more so if the music around them had more contrast. The sharper moments lacked edge and vinegar, but not for Koh’s lack of effort. The violin has repeated outbursts in the fourth movement by itself, and these were just as irascible and passionate as one could wish. The First Church has a diffusing acoustic; perhaps the balances were better when the program was repeated Sunday at the much smaller room at the Goethe-Institut Boston.
Stravinsky’s Suite is a difficult piece to love, though it shouldn’t be. It is in his neoclassical vein and filled with ear-catching fragments, with a march, tango, waltz, rag and devil’s dance all making an appearance. Stravinsky often worked in fragments, but in his best works they form something greater. These five movements agitate attractively, but don’t add up. They were adapted from the full L’Histoire du Soldat, whose larger ensemble, spoken text and dancers requires the music do less on its own. Kelli O’Connor (clarinet), Jessica Lee (violin) and Elizabeth Schumann (piano) gave a convincing performance, making a surface alternately glittery and gritty as one could hope, and did not flinch from Stravinsky’s occasionally unreasonable technical demands. In fact, I found the third movement, Petit concert, surprisingly charming in its sheer excess: Stravinsky poured an immense amount material into it, and the players made all of it audible.
The Brahms Piano Trio in C Major (Op. 87) was the big work of the evening, and Jessica Lee (violin), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), and Schumann gave an appropriately large-hearted reading. The opening movement was lyrical—perhaps too much so, with quite a lot of rubato that felt a bit deliberate, even tentative. The ensuing movements tightened up rhythmically without losing any expression: the minor-key gypsy-ish variations of the second were a study in brooding, driven by Popper-Keizer’s almost over-the-top interpretation. The scherzo’s opening was both gossamer and terrifying, and when the trio came, you could feel the shift as the players moved to the new, expansive mood as if possessed of one brain. Clara Schumann criticized this passage, feeling it was too out of character with the rest of the movement; on this evening, the players proved Clara wrong. The finale was boisterous and minutely observed; pianist Schumann commanded without overshadowing her colleagues, her playing by turns limpid and barrelhouse.