IN: Reviews

Chameleons Rescue and Lift Off


Chameleon at First Church (Michael Wan photo)
Chameleon at First Church (Michael Wan photo)

Chameleon Arts Ensemble and First Church in Boston again made it obvious that both were made for each other. Saturday evening’s curious and remarkable program lifted off well beyond the usual fare.

Long overdue, Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem, Three Pictures of Chassidic Life for violin & piano reappeared in Boston via who else but Chameleon. The composer wrote, “it is neither my purpose nor my desire to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, nor to base my work on more or less authentic melodies…I am not an archaeologist; for me the most important thing is to write good and sincere music.” And that is exactly what we heard from violinist Alexi Kenney and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit, good and sincere music.

It was the closing movement Simchas Torah (Rejoicing of Torah) where the polished duo broke out in a jubilant celebration that rose and rose by way of astonishing contrasts, from heartfelt glow to rapturous afterglow.

Born in 1950 in Leningrad, Elena Firsova began composing at the age of eleven. She now resides in England, where she teaches. Her Meditation in a Japanese Garden for flute, viola & piano, a one-movement composition, dates from 1992. Her program note, as best I can make of it, ties together this combination of instruments, a Japanese concept of beauty, and a small Japanese garden in Dartington, which she enjoys. Experiencing this meditation was most puzzling with its wandering chromaticism and inexplicable shifts to structures of serialism. The sharp, sometimes colliding treble calls from flute and viola faintly alluded to Gagaku. Deborah Boldin, Scott Woolweaver and Chang-Freiheit together formulated an instrumental splendor that, in and of itself, made this enigmatic experience worthwhile.

Mary Mackenzie sang Olivier Messiaen’s Chants de terre et de ciel for soprano & piano from memory with near-perfect success. Throughout the half-hour cycle reveling over the French composer’s faith, his wife and son, focus really remained steadfast on Mackenzie and Chang-Freiheit. Both musicians shouldered the unmistakable language of Messiaen. Mackenzie produced an amazing array of color, something Messaien, who beholds the interval of the tritone as replicating all the colors of the spectrum, would surely have to admire.

All in all, it was less a spiritual voyage à la Messaien than a clear display of fascinating vocal timbres. When Mackenzie was in lower register or in lower volume anywhere in her vast range, she was most compelling and surprisingly alluring. Chang-Freiheit toned down to excellent effect the percussive nature of Messiaen’s piano writing, bringing to it a gorgeousness and robustness. This duo had you listening all the time.

David Ludwig writes of his Haiku Catharsis for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, “I liked the inherent conflict of the words…” The first cathartic haiku about waiting for someone featured a lingering fraternal twin type of linear play. The second, about dying in a dream, strings and winds turned unpredictably canonic, still in slow moving fashion. The third, about longing, opened with a snarling cello and eerie glissandos on the violin. This haiku seemed quite long before many of us realized that the fourth, about a temple bell, had already been played.

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble again came to the rescue executing the composition’s sparse and graphic soundscape with supreme care, being as explicit as was possible while keeping a cool and poised deportment.

With rediscovery, curiosity and supersonic performing behind them, the players delivered the coup-de-grace with the Saint-Saëns Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 92. Alexi Kenney, Rafael Popper-Keizer and Elizabeth Schumann superbly enlivened every bit of it, dramatizing here, teasing there, forecasting, and recalling…all of this Saint-Saëns was musical storytelling that let you sit back and enjoy then pull you to the edge of your seat for pure thrills. And these three were every bit of an ensemble in the end sounding as one big wonderful one.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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