Another of Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s twice-a-season “Up Close” concerts featured recitals of its members in a cabaret setting at the beautiful Goethe Institute. Upon arrival wine is offered; the guests then sit at small tables with handmade chocolate truffles and sugar cookies shaped like chameleons made by the artistic director, Deborah Boldin. Sunday, one felt charmed even before a sound was produced.
Chameleon’s clarinetists Kelli O’Connor and Gary Gorcyzca, along with pianist Vivian Choi stunningly characterized Boldin’s skillfully assembled program. Although I am a serious fan of the clarinet, all but one of the pieces were new to me.
Acting as emcee, Boldin deftly deconstructed each work for just long enough before the players would offer a sampling. Gorcyca on clarinet with O’Connor on a Leblanc basset horn and pianist Choi opened with the three-movement Concert Piece No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 114 of Mendelssohn. The basset horn, used by Mozart in his Requiem and The Magic Flute and Beethoven in The Creatures of Prometheus, was played beautifully by O’Connor, and it was immediately clear that these two clarinetists were quite the duo.
The Mendelssohn has a lovely back-story. It was written for his friend Heinrich Bärmann of the Munich court orchestra, whose son Carl also played clarinet. They met for dinner at the Bärmann home in December 1832 where, in exchange for a new piece for the father and son, Mendelssohn would be rewarded with a dinner of dumplings and cream pastry. The score to this piece bore the otherwise puzzling inscription “A grand duet for dumpling or cream pastry.” The composer, asked to write another duo, did so within a month. “Possibly better than the first,” Carl wrote, although it is not known whether he played it with orchestral accompaniment or piano.
Francis Poulenc’s spunky 1918 Sonata for Two Clarinets (revised in 1945) received an inspired performance by Gorcyca on a clarinet in A and O’Connor on a clarinet in B-flat. Poulenc wrote this Sonata when he was 19 and serving in the military. Its movement headings are typical of the composer, with very strong tempo contrasts, the lively rhythms and high spirits of the outer two movements framing a central, much slower Andante. The American composer Ned Rorem, who greatly admired Poulenc, quotes Jean Cocteau about the Two-Clarinet Sonata: “It comes out of the silence, and then returns to silence like a cuckoo in the clock.” Rorem adds, “A cuckoo, yes, or a nightingale or a prophet bird. For what this piece owes to Stravinsky’s Rossignol or Schumann’s Vofel also Prophet is inestimable.” I was thrilled to have such a wonderful introduction from this team.
The two winds (Gorcyca on bass clarinet) teamed up with Choi for Canadian composer Gary Kulesha’s (born 1954) five-movement Mysterium Conjunctions from 1980. Kalusha has been very active on the Canadian music scene composing, teaching at the University of Toronto, conducting, performing as a pianist and recording. I had very mixed feelings about his piece, whose title was taken from a book by Carl Jung whose work,” Kulesha writes, “has been a profound influence on me both artistically and personally.” The title, he explains, means ‘mystery of conjunctions,’ and both the book and my piece are about the unification of diverse elements, symbolically in alchemical process, but functionally within the human psyche… There are five sections played without a break in this piece; each is concerned with a different stage in the alchemical process.” I liked the quiet, slow third movement (I wasn’t really keeping track) and had hoped the piece would simple end there, but it went on stridently and noisily. Perhaps I am the wrong audience for Kulesha. Others seemed more enthused.
Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 167 by Saint-Säens bears the composer’s signature repetition of the opening music at the piece’s end (this happens as well in his Fantasy for Violin and Harp. Written in the first few months of 1921, the last year of the composer’s life, this piece was the middle piece of a trio of woodwind sonatas—oboe, clarinet, and bassoon—projected to be part of a bigger project involving works for instruments lacking extensive sonata repertoire. (One is reminded off Claude Debussy, who wrote three sonatas of a projected six at the end of his life). Sensing he didn’t have much time left, he wrote to a friend, “I am using my last energies to add to the repertoire for these otherwise neglected instruments.” Saint-Saëns was one of many composers who felt the urge to write for woodwind instruments; others include Bax, Holst, Honegger and Milhaud. Saint-Saëns returned to a classical sonata model for this works, written in four movements, instead of the three,found more commonly in the Romantic period. O’Connor and Choi gave it a sparkling performance, full of poise and charm. I last heard O’Connor when the Chameleons played the Schubert Octet, and her playing once again impressed me deeply.
Finally, Brahms’s Sonata in E-Flat Major, Op. 120, No. 2, written in 1894 received an elegant, spirited reading by Gary Gorcyca and Vivian Choi. Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas, along with his Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 and Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 (with piano and cello) stand as monumental reasons clarinetists either choose or stick with their instruments. These works are perfectly written for clarinet, but Brahms also published a reworked version for viola. Apparently, Luciano Berio was so struck by this work that he orchestrated and reworked the whole sonata for orchestra in 1986. It is known as “Op. 120, No. 1,” clearly referring to the viola sonata’s catalogue number. Violists constantly play them, despite their being less felicitous on that instrument (in the opinion of my in-house violist). All four of these clarinet works over their existence to the fine clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld, a member of the Ducal Orchestra at Meiningen whom Brahms befriended and dubbed “the nightingale of the orchestra.”
All of this made for a long, luxuriant afternoon. The audience left deeply enriched by the beautiful playing- and the Boldin’s delicious sweets.