From Chameleon Arts Ensemble one can always expect first-rate playing and the adventurous programming, for which artistic director (and flutist) Deborah Bolden has won several prestigious awards. On Saturday evening at First Church in Boston, “proud music of the storm” caught up Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), David Bruce (born 1970), Michael Berkeley (born 1948), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in storms of all sorts.
Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano, Op. 23 certainly stands as one of the highlights of the clarinet repertoire. He penned these charming pieces in 1941 prior to his service in the Ministry of War Transport in London during World War II. The first four debuted at one of the famous lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery. Finzi’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, however, requested a finale in a fast tempo. The Bagatelles became the composer’s most popular work, which annoyed him as he considered them mere “trifles.” Clarinetist Gary Gorczyca and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit found much charm and beauty in their felicitous introduction to these rather irresistible mere bagatelles.
Prague-born Erwin Schulhoff came to musical maturity in the 1920s, becoming one of the composers regrettably known best today as a victim of the Holocaust. (He perished of tuberculosis in the concentration camp at Wülzburg). I learned from Gabe Langfur’s excellent essay that Dvorak recognized Schulhoff as a child prodigy; he later studied briefly with Debussy. Brahms Schumann, Reger, and Scriabin also influenced him, but his devastating service in the Austrian army in 1914 shook his beliefs moved him toward the second Viennese School and the Berlin Dadaist movement. He later became embraced American jazz, and to my ears, there is often a hint of Hindemith. Schulhoff composed his Concertino for flute, viola, and double bass in just four days in 1925, and its premiere featured Hindemith on viola. Chameleon’s excellent flutist (and piccolo player) Deborah Boldin, violist Scott Woolweaver, and bassist Randall Ziegler made a compelling case for this rather bleak piece, based largely on Czech dances.
Hearing Chameleon concerts is a little like being fixed up on a listening date with a new composer you will probably really enjoy. David Bruce’s “Gumboots” for clarinet and string quartet (2008) was one such from beginning to end, especially in the hands of Gorczyca, violinists Robyn Bollinger and Eunae Koh, violist Matthew Lipman, and the extraordinary cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer. Gorczyca was terrific on the bass clarinet, and there was some distinguished viola playing by Lipman, who won the 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and many competitions. David Bruce seems to be one of the hottest composers around, judging by the awe-inspiring list of commissions, and one can easily see why listening to this two-part piece. Here, the composer speaks:
“There is a paradox in music, and indeed all art; the fact that life-enriching art has been produced, even inspired by conditions of tragedy, brutality and oppression a famous example being Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written while he was in a prisoner of war camp. Gumboot Dancing bears this trait- it was born out of the brutal labor conditions in South Africa under Apartheid, in which black minors were chained together and worse Gumboots (Wellington books) while they worked in the flooded gold mines, because it was cheaper for the owners to supply boots than to drain the floodwater from the mine. Apparently slapping the boots and chains was used by the workers as a form of communication which was otherwise banned in the mine, and this later developed into a form of dance. If the examples of Gumboot Dancing available online are anything to go by (reviewer’s note: this piece is on YouTube), it is characterized by a huge vitality and zest for life. So, this for me is a string example of how something beautiful and life-enhancing can come out of something far more negative. Of course, this paradox has a far simpler explanation: the resilience of the human spirit.”
Gumboots opens with sorrowful beauty in the bass clarinet and viola, reminiscent (to these ears) of Copland. Slow as a funeral procession, haunting, yearning, it slowly moves into a faster, then frantic and exuberant dance. I could have happily listened to it again, due in no small part to Gorczyca’s sensitive clarinet playing.
Michael Berkeley was born into musical royalty in London in 1948. His father was the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley, and his godfather, Benjamin Britten. He suffered serious hearing loss. and eventually he was able to continue composing, due to years of training to hear music internally. In the early 1980s, Berkeley wrote two pieces for oboe and piano, Fierce Tears I bore a dedication to oboist Janet Paxton for whom he had written his 1979 Oboe Concerto; he dedicated the second to the memory of his father. Fierce Tears was played with ferocity indeed by Chang-Freiheit and oboist Nancy Dimock. The angry piano part rages with the composer’s grief and anguish, the oboe part shows that the composer really knows the instrument. I have admired -Dimock over the years, and thought she was superb in this often-wrenching work.
The title comes from Dylan Thomas comes from his poem “And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Finally, the not-so-often heard Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major (Bollinger and Koh, Woolweaver, Lipman, and Popper-Keizer) unreeled with polish and passion. Bollinger got to strut her stuff in the final Presto. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, both on stage and in the audience from beginning to end of the generously long and gratifying Chameleon outing. The next is “from the painter’s hand”—music of Poulenc, Schwendinger, Ravel, Feldman, and Schumann. See you there!