IN: Reviews

By Whatever Name, Chameleon Mixes It Up


Deborah Boldin (file photo)
Deborah Boldin (file photo)

One of the joys of hearing the Chameleon Arts Ensemble comes from Deborah Boldin’s whimsical thematic programming, mixing old and new, letting pieces echo and shed light on each other. Saturday night’s “here and there, in paths apart,” presented the famous Drei Romanzen, Op. 94 by Robert Schumann with two newish two pieces related to Schubert and Schubert’s beloved Octet.

The show at First Church in Boston began with the three famously plangent melodies by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) here performed by oboist Nancy Dimock and pianist Vivian Choi. Composed in 1849, towards the end of the five years the Schumann family spent in Dresden, they have been arranged for many other instruments (clarinet, violin, viola) but Nancy Dimock’s playing of it was well worth trudging out on this near record cold evening.

One of the big audience pleasers on Saturday night was Winterserenade by the Lithuanian composer Onuté Narbutaité (b. 1956). A musical commentary on “Gute Nacht” from Schubert’s magisterial song cycle Winterreise, it is scored for flute, violin and viola. Deborah Boldin, Kristin Lee, and Scott Woolweaver gave it an expert treatmetn, replete with some very high notes on the flute and violin. I would have enjoyed hearing the  eight-minute “Gute Nacht” before Winterserenade. When I did this at home, the Narbutaité seemed even cleverer. The musical snippets plucked from Schubert’s song shimmered like stained glass magically assembled from tiny shards. A superb performance.

And speaking of clever, is there a musician in town cleverer or abler to do more things brilliantly than composer John Harrison (b. 1938)? His intriguing 17-minute November 19, 1928: Hallucinations in Four Episodes from 1988. Sounde4d superb in the hands of pianist Vivian Choi, violinist Tessa Lark, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Raphel Popper-Keizer. I must confess to having enjoyed the composer’s program notes as much as the music to which he set them.

I. Introduction: Schubert crosses into the next world. The trumpets of death are heard three times. Schubert begins his journey haunted by sounds which are not his music, but pertain to his music in disturbing ways.

II. Suite: Schubert finds himself in a hall of mirrors (1. Theme – Ecossaise – Moment Musical – Impromptu – Valse). In the hall of mirrors music sounds in a manner previously unknown to Schubert; everything is played back immediately upside down.

III. Rondo: Schubert recalls a rondo fragment from 1816. Emblematic of a storehouse of still to be explored ideas, needing centuries more, the short fragment which begins this Rondo is the only one in this piece composed by Schubert in his first life.

IV. Fugue: Schubert continues the fugue subject (S-C-H-U-B-E-R-T) which Sechter assigned him. Shortly before his death, Schubert went to the theorist Sechter to work on a very specific problem pertaining to the tonal answer of the fugue subject, important to Schubert in the composition of his masses. Sechter, well aware that he was teaching the most extraordinary student who ever came for a lesson, concluded by assigning Schubert a fugue subject on his own name. Schubert was unable to undertake the task; he died about a week later, on November 19, 1828.

After intermission came Schubert’s Octet, famously commissioned by Count Ferdinand Troyer, an avid amateur clarinetist who wanted a companion work to Beethoven’s popular Septet, op. 20, of 1800. Composed in 1824, the six-movement work added a second violin to Beethoven’s ensemble but kept the Septet’s form, a quasi-serenade/divertimento of six movements. Clocking in at about an hour, this is Schubert’s largest-scale chamber music work, contemporaneous with his A minor (sometimes called “Rosamunde”) and Death and the Maiden string quartets.  As Beethoven wrote his Septet in preparation for his First Symphony, Schubert viewed the Octet as “paving the way towards a grand symphony” –what ultimately became his Symphony No. 9 of 1828. The movements of the Octet are: (1) Adagio – Allegro – Più allegro (the theme derives from Schubert’s song Der Wanderer); (2) Adagio; (3) Allegro vivace – Trio – Allegro vivace; (4) Andante – variations. Un poco più mosso – Più lento (the variations derives from a theme in Schubert’s early opera Die Freunde von Salamanka); (5) Menuetto. Allegretto – Trio – Menuetto – Coda; and (6) Andante molto – Allegro – Andante molto – Allegro molto. The Octet was privately performed in the spring of 1824 at the home of the commissioner’s employer, Archduke Rudolph (to whom Beethoven dedicated his “Archduke” Trio of 1811), and received its public premiere in Schubert’s last subscription concert in 1827, but it was not published until 1889.

The clarinet part is especially—and expectedly—prominent, and Kelli O’Connor played it wonderfully. I was especially impressed with Eli Epstein’s horn playing, and with the whole polished ensemble in general. Bassoonist Margaret Phillips was joined by a stellar line-up of players—violinists Tessa Lark and Kristin Lee, violist Scott Woolweaver, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and string bassist Susan Hagen. I don’t expect, ever, to hear a better performance.

There is much to love about Chameleon concerts (including the fabulous program notes by Gabriel Langfur), but at the top of my list (having heard well over a dozen concerts) are its amazing musicians, who make every concert gratifying.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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