Chameleon Arts Ensemble delivered a stirring, multi-faceted concert of works on the theme “from the painter’s hand” for its season closer on Saturday at First Church, Boston.
Francis Poulenc had long considered writing a cycle of art songs about contemporary painters, Le travail du peintre, based on poems by one of his favorite poets, Paul Éluard. The chosen seven include Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miro and the less well-known Jacques Villon. Mary Mackenzie’s beautiful, rich voice made us remember all over again that Poulenc is a great master of sublimating impulses into form and color. Her mien visibly adopting a different personality for each piece, Mackenzie embodied the aesthetic idiom of each painter, bringing out the artful contours of Poulenc’s meditations. Picasso, backed by jagged angular chords from pianist Vivian Choi, evoked a pictorial voice both fierce and melancholy; in Chagall we heard a joyful frisky piano and a singer in the spotlight amid the circus swirl of activity. Braque gave us a fragmented collage in the piano, the voice cutting through the kaleidoscopic pieces to pull it all together into coherence. Juan Gris was perhaps the most lyrically moving of the songs, Mackenzie conveying loss and yearning, and Choi evoking the quiet eternity of heartbreak, with the stanza “Table guitare et verre vide” forming the kenotic core of the piece. The last song brought the cycle to a fitting conclusion with voice and piano fusing Eluard’s poem and Villon’s pastels into a passionate affirmation of life – an enduring trust in human goodness “despite dead gods and lies.”
The Artist’s Muse for flute, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion, a world premiere Koussevitsky Commission from Laura Elise Schwendinger, followed. Without the mediation of words, the composer proceeded directly to the inspiration behind the painter’s work, bringing to life the women behind seven famous masterpieces, as though honoring but also contesting the visual surface. Throughout, Boldin’s flute served beautifully as the ongoing voice of the perennial muse, the elusive “Other” constructed by the gaze of male painters. A short introduction took us out of linear time, William Manley’s percussion especially effective in plunging us into vanished realms, from the enigmatic interiority of a 15th-century Young Girl by Petrus Christus, to the concluding gold-patterned swirl of Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer. Picasso’s Jacqueline appeared with all of her modernist angst, Cézanne’s wife moved bodily in a poignant waltz, Leonardo’s Cecilia Gallerani stroked her elegant carnivorous ermine, and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pitcher appeared with staccatos in the piano and pizzicatos in the strings, bathed in the light of percussion as she poured her milk. With a sudden twist of waltz, so to speak, the mood darkened as the eternal muse took the form of Sargent’s Madame X, cosmopolitan and scandalous, high-priestess of intoxication and city lights, followed in conclusion by her more vulnerable sister, gold-shimmering Adele Bloch-Bauer, vestal and victim, muse and mourner. Schwendinger’s delightful piece effectively transformed my own gaze on the Artist’s Muse by introducing a competing muse of flesh and bone, hardship and failure, grievance and glory, behind the painter’s still-life effigy.
Ravel wrote of his 1922 Sonata for Violin and Cello, that “sparseness (‘dépouillement’) is pushed to the extreme.” As though exploring the full meaning of this turn in Ravel’s work, Popper-Keizer and Ninomiya gave a stunning, absolutely unforgettable rendition of its bare, brilliant bones. What they did that was especially memorable was to make every aspect of the counterpoint and every change of meter bear a momentously deep meaning. In the opening Allegro, poignant phrasing in the violin combined with disturbing muted rumbles in the cello to create a sense of expansive longing that ended in a sudden cadence, tender and a bit desolate. Cello and violin worked in perfect communion, producing a rich and finely-textured sound. The second movement Scherzo was given a bold and original interpretation: they allowed the music to unleash a submerged bolus of anger that alternated with episodes of deep sadness and mourning, as though Ravel were still grappling with the carnage of the Great War. The Adagio was exquisitely beautiful, mainly due to an unrushed tempo, which gave Ravel’s pain enough space to transform and sublimate into mist. The two performers seemed to weep together, as though in each other’s arms – leaving us, like Camus’s Stranger, “purged of evil, emptied of hope.” The final movement conveyed the maturity that is reached after illusions are gone. The lively, slightly Hungarian but also slightly Cubist and Bartok-like counterpoint, managed to be simultaneously warm-hearted and edgy, full of irony and defiance. In this marvelously complex finale, the performers called our attention to the great liberties that Ravel was willing to take with sound, most especially in the quasi-sigh at the dead heart of this jaunty and often dissonant movement. They conveyed something like a modernist ability to delight in a profane world with eyes wide open.
Which brings us to Morton Feldman and Franz Kline, both of whom seemed impelled to convey the bleak Beckettian insight that first, there’s what we don’t understand, and then there’s nothing at all. In lieu of movements, six distinct voices reproduced the dynamic elements of Kline’s abstract expressionist painting. Soprano Mackenzie skillfully evoked the unsettling sound of distance that is intimate, making the remote immediate and the immediate remote, much like Kline’s impenetrable and layered whites. Eli Epstein’s French horn introduced large three-dimensional masses that red-shifted as echoes of the whiteness, much like Kline’s hanging, heavy black beams suspended in nothingness. William Manley’s chimes explored the vastness of nothingness by creating a floating spaciousness while Eunae Koh’s violin, in eerie high register, evoked the random edges and occasional collisions resulting from the pull of gravity as expressed in Josh Gordon’s cello. Through this process, Feldman captured the sublime solitude and bereavement of Kline’s canvasses, hinting that our modern world in constant revision and construction is as austere and majestic as a Sibelius landscape.
Robert Schumann’s wonderful Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, often called a portrait of his wife Clara, perhaps also constitutes a portrait of their mutual love and caring, a duet with his enveloping support and strength in the strings, her sensitivity and understanding in the piano. From the joyous outbursts of the opening Allegro to the complex interweaving of love and caring in the final fugato of the closing Rondo, it made a perfect concert closer. Pianist Elizabeth Schumann’s brilliant, empathic and wise, alternating tenderness, support, and understanding kept the stormy turbulence of the strings in check when madness threatened. The perfect balance and coordination of the ensemble attested to an authentic and striking camaraderie. Ninomiya, whose violin had been appropriately austere in the Ravel, here radiated a mellifluous, golden emotionality. The second movement In modo d’una Marcia, conveyed the funereal desert that is separation, interrupted by tender episodes of day-dreaming and exchanged letters in which the lovers’ souls mingle from a distance. Scott Woolweaver’s gritty viola was wonderfully sad, Popper-Keizer’s cello wept, and the movement culminated in a burst of rebellion and decisiveness, with the result that separation would soon be ended and put into perspective as a painful memory. In the Scherzo the performers exploited the marking molto vivace to perfection, evoking the joyful bustle of domestic life, reaching up to sun-lit heights and coming back to earth, with episodes alternating between lilting happiness and an exuberant whirling verging on mania. Proceeding almost attaca to the Rondo finale, the energy of the scherzo was transformed into rhythmic momentum for the long duration, with a return of elements from the first movement and a great range of emotional expressiveness. With remarkable colors in Woolweaver’s viola, the vitality of Clara and Robert’s partnership seemed drawn from deep inside their love into a forward-looking, piano-led fugato and a thrilling affirmation.