Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s “Moon Dreams” culminated in First Church Boston last night with Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionistic / Romantic Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet. To Richard Dehmel’s namesake poem, which vividly conjures moonbeams revealing a couple drowning in sexual yearning, Schoenberg responded with inflamed tonal and chromatic emanations. Unlike string quartet music, which demands years of listening-in to refine, this sextet pits vivid individuals in rapturous encounters with large emotions. Niceties of polish become secondary. Violinists Yoo Jin Jang and Robyn Bollinger, violists Scott Woolweaver and Mark Holloway, and cellists Rafael Popper-Keizer and Joshua Gordon continuously developed the varying themes with in-the-moment immediacy that embraced this apotheosis of its era. Never shading the grandiloquent grotesqueries, the ensemble also brought us tears of release. The stratospheric longings of Jang and the frenzied lyric impulses of Popper-Keizer were only the most noteworthy among the plenteous soloistic riffs. All six players throbbed with to-the nth-power-expressivity and shied not a whit from orotund hyperinflection.
Had Schoenberg chosen to remain on this path, it might have actually lent reality to a story that deserves to be true. It has been told that in 1950, his family played a trick on the composer during a birthday celebration at his favorite LA ice cream parlor: they secreted a private 78 into the WurliTzer jukebox, so that when a plant dropped in his nickel and pressed A-1, an excerpt from Verklärte Nacht spun. One hopes Schoenberg briefly believed that his most popular work had made it onto the charts.
Emotion being central to the musical makeup of Chameleon flutist / director Deborah Boldin, she reported crying at the rehearsal. Typical of her programming, “Moon Dreams” arrived only after years of planning. She joined, as is her custom, experienced works such as Schoenberg’s, and pieces by Rebecca Clarke and Bloch from the early and middle portions of the last century, with recent scores she believes deserve experiencing.
In the opener, pianist Vivian Choi and Woolweaver brought salon sensibility to Clarke’s delicate Morpheus. While Clarke’s accompaniments sounded merely tasteful, almost sedate, they may also have applied Debussy-brand perfume to the temporal lobes. Choi found a dark yet articulate approach that mutedly but manfully supported Woolweaver’s songfulness. True to its title, though, Morpheus proved a sleepy opener, hardly one of Clarke’s bravura works.
Australian Brett Dean began composing early in his 14-year stint as violist with the Berlin Philharmonic, which he joined in 1984, in his early 20s. His prolific output in multiple genres has received much praise. According to Dean, Night Window, for clarinet (Gary Groczyca), viola (Mark Holloway), and piano (Choi) concerns “vulnerability, fear and insecurity … after dark.” The profoundly quiet opening for bass clarinet and viola “introduces the principal motivic and harmonic material.” The central variation movement evokes a “different version of the same dream.” The fast conclusion guarantees strong audience response. We could have enjoyed the variation movement more fully had the initial statement been stronger or just more melodic. Instead, we got what on initial hearing (your reporter had done no debate prep) registered as color and gesture without guideposts of familiarity. The players all seemed comfortable with their assigned bleatings, thrummings and jazzy traffic sounds, however, and throughout, Choi’s stroking on the strings or the keys supplied attractive musical cement during the perhaps overlong 22 minutes.
The helpful printed notes from Chameleon treasurer/annotator Gabriel Langfur reminded us that although most of Bloch’s output is not specifically Jewish, his melodic inspiration often derives from ancient if not explicitly Hebraic sources. His serene Violin Sonata Sonata No. 2, Poème Mystique, apparently reflects awakening from barbiturate-infused sleep. After two outings from violists, Robyn Bollinger’s outgoing play on a 1778 Gagliano violin electrified the air. Choi once again colored with vivid, varied tone. Further affirmations brought Choi to welcome prominence as the two transmitted the composer’s outgoing longings with expressive juice. Reliance on traditional craft, clear structure, and decipherable development inform Bloch’s entire output as much as his melodic gifts. As generously performed, this satisfying composition somehow recalled Whitman’s “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”
John’s Woolrich’s In the Mirrors of Asleep, the composer’s second work recently presented by Chameleon, opened the second half as a warmup for Schoenberg’s Top 40 hit. Inspired by Anne Stevenson’s poem of the same name, it responds with “broken music of ticking clocks, brooding chords and silences.” Boldin brought her magic flute to an ensemble which also included clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Asleep ran by rather quietly and pleasantly in eight jazzy, pointillistic, slinky, skittish minutes. Aside from a single big unison statement, we heard untroubled pizzicatos, flutter-tounging, and short strokes. In another fine example of Boldin’s savvy, Woolrich’s light sprinkling of fairydust allowed the Blaue Reiter-anticipating etchings of Schoenberg to stand out in sharp relief.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.