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Chameleon Reveals Bach the Colorist


Sooyun Kim (file photo)
Sooyun Kim (file photo)

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble completed its exploration of Bach and the Baroque’s influence on subsequent generations by returning to the source and giving us all six Brandenburg concertos in a single evening at First Church Boston. It was an evening of subtle and fresh orchestral color, magnificently displaying Bach’s compositional genius in daring instrumental combinations, counterpoint density, and in marrying cantabile and dance styles.

If you find yourself feeling unappreciated, think of Bach. Viewed by many as an out-of-date second-rate composer during his lifetime, he received no acknowledgment from the Margrave of Brandenburg for the groundbreaking “Concerts avec plusieurs instruments,” which were neglected and unheard until their rediscovery in the Brandenburg archives, in 1849, and published the following year. The ordering chosen by Chameleon was intended “to give a dramatic progression for each half,” and it worked. The concert started with No. 1, which uses the largest ensemble of the six, featuring a ripieno of five strings and harpsichord and a concertino of two French horns (played admirably by Whitacre Hill and Eli Epstein), three oboes and bassoon, and a violin. This grouping was especially effective in the fourth movement minuet, the winds in the trio led by oboist Nancy Dimock especially delightful. Most notable was the polacca, played up-tempo with unusual subtlety, especially in keeping the second part only slightly louder than the first, to give it a mysterious interiority.

Concerto No. 5 followed, in which the keyboard is famously freed from its role as continuo to emerge as soloist. Bach is said to have used this work, and in particular the spectacular cadenza at the end of the first movement, to showcase a new harpsichord he had just obtained. As though repeating his predecessor’s gesture, harpsichordist Sergey Schepkin introduced us to his double-manual made by William Bennett after an experimental harpsichord of Heironymus Hass (a contemporary of Bach) that features an extra set of strings an octave below the others with their own sounding board. With the stop pulled, the instrument has a larger range than the typical modern grand piano, and produces a surprising organlike sound.

Robyn Bollinger, violin, and Deborah Boldin, flute, were front and center with strongly virtuosic playing, tender and expressive, nicely balancing the harpsichord, allowing the piece to work as a triple concerto. Directly behind them, Rafael Popper-Keizer’s cello was solid, supportive and uplifting. It is hard to capture in words the eloquence of the concertino gradually hushing its vivacity to focus the ear and allow the ethereal sounds of the harpsichord to become audible. Schepkin pulled out the stops for the cadenza, which erupted in a cascade of notes, shaped by slight pauses followed by waves of sound to create a three-dimensional fountain of splendor that nonetheless remained intimate, almost private, like the inspiring wellspring of some incomprehensible noumenal realm. The ensuing slow movement seemed to contain but also to translate the wild excess of inspiration into a tender style galant, violin and flute in a hypnotic lament of pinks and pastels, the harpsichord gently but implacably impelling, like the flow of time. The gigue fugue of the third movement felt at once solar and wistful, evoking the mystery of earth and dance at the height of summer, the harpsichord’s sudden fits of sound indicating secret sources of water and fertility.

The first half of the program ended with Concerto No. 3, a showpiece for strings with three violins, three violas, three cellos, double-bass and continuo; as promised, it ended the first half jubilantly. Especially notable for their vivacity and technical brilliance were violin soloist Robyn Bollinger and violist Scott Woolweaver; yet all of the strings were soloists, the cellos and double-bass Randall Zigler adding a marvelous tinge of threat with ominous rumblings. The question of what to do with the two-chord phrygian cadence that comes between the outer movements was solved by adopting Ton Koopman’s idea of inserting as harpsichord solo the brief slow movement from the Toccata in G, S.916. In Schepkin’s hands it acquired a calm, elegant vastness, like a dreamy pièce d’eau blurring the boundary with the sky, ending with the orchestra seamlessly joining in on the last two chords. After this contemplative moment, the brisk tempo of the third movement brought a rush of interactive purposefulness, joyous and decisive, overcoming the threat of entropy at every second, going beyond the usual perpetuum mobile interpretation to urge us to seize the day, with Vivaldian grace but also Bachian depth, embracing dissonance and risk. (That effect was so immediate as to prompt an ovation.)

The second half opened with Brandenburg No. 2, notable for its high-register concertino of flute, oboe and clarino trumpet; in this instance Mary Elizabeth Bowden, to great effect and with no apparent effort, played a “rotary piccolo,” a piccolo trumpet with rotary valves. The allegro was played briskly, square, tight and muscular, followed by a tender and exceptionally expressive andante while the trumpet rested. The third movement fugue was delightful, with wonderful interplay among the soloists, the flute of Sooyun Kim, Nancy Dimock, oboe, and Eunae Koh, violin.

Brandenburg No. 6, all lower-register strings, was another highlight. The husky violas of Woolweaver and Mark Holloway brought out lyrical tones in the opening canon at the unison, turning the double-image effect into patches of lustrous browns and copper shadows, tinged with the nostalgic smell of a wood fire and grounded by the dark chords of double-bass Zigler. Here were the colors of Chardin, a tribute to the tasks of daily living, the sounds of human weight. With its melancholic, sinuous phrasing, the Adagio conveyed an emotion too ancient to be articulated by language, ending mysteriously with a voice from deep inside the earth in Joshua Gordon’s cello. The third-movement gigue was given a nicely rugged feel, opening almost like landler, to turn into a pulsating and extroverted contest of skills and upmanship, but innocent and boisterous.

Ending on a pastoral note with Concerto No. 4 worked well, the triple-meter opening allegro impelled by the flutes, interspersed with solos from violinist Kristin Lee, the tempo punctuated by the strings. Those flutes took the lead in the sarabande-like andante, followed by the prodigious violin writing in the ritornello-form fugal third movement. The evening concluded with the joyous and marvelously ambiguous final cadence of the third movement, implying a momentary interruption in larger, open-ended communion, promising that every morrow will start where every day has left off, replenishing with energy and hope. Indeed, if Sunday afternoon’s repeat performance had not been sold out, I would have gladly attended it, as we really cannot have too much of a good thing.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This critic feels compelled to thank Mr. Golub for such a colorful and thoughtful review.

    Four days after the concert, I am still walking on air. The Sunday Brandenbergs concert was strikingly excellent, and will remain in my memory as one of the best concerts of this or any other year..

    Tempi were perfect. The ensemble work and continuo playing was brilliant. I loved the two horns, the harpsichord solo (played dazzlingly by Sergey Schepkin, better known as a pianist), the oboes, the violins, especially Kristin Lee in Concerto No. 4. The violists, particularly Scott Woolweaver, were superb as were cellists Rafael Popper-Kaizer and Joshua Gordon. The flutists were splendid. If I have left any of the players out, it is because I have run out of superlatives.

    This was an amazing, awe-inspiring concert. Bravo to all the Chameleons!

    Comment by Susan Miron — December 10, 2015 at 1:57 pm

  2. I have long admired Leon Golub’s excellent reviews, but I have hesitated writing about them because he is a good friend of mine. That said, I hope readers don’t mind if I add my words of praise to those of Susan Miron, another excellent critic, since this review is especially knowledgeable, insightful and well written. In fact, I wish some of my students could write so perceptively—and none of them are astrophysicists! If Dr. Golub’s astronomical and scientific skills are as good as his analytical and reviewing abilities, I think we can all rest easy should we discover a meteor hurtling to earth on a collision course.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — December 12, 2015 at 10:15 am

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