’Twas a gift to be simple, ’twas a gift to be free, ’twas a gift to be at the First Church in Boston on Saturday night! With “Appalachian Spring: Creating an American Sound,” Chameleon Arts Ensemble opened its 20th season with exciting, all-American servings of Charles Ives, Amy Beach, Arthur Berger, John Harbison, and Aaron Copland.
Mary Mackenzie sang with a reedy, warm tone, her voice ideal for the likes of Ives’s 114 Songs. Comedic drama filled the room in “Memories” and “Circus Band,” and her unwavering zeal charmed concertgoers. Mackenzie’s “Charlie Rutledge” peaked the set, her over exaggerated American diction prompting a few laughs from the audience.
Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67 stood as a focal point of the first half of the bill, introducing violinists Robyn Bollinger and Grace Park, violist Scott Woolweaver, cellist Aron Zelkowicz, and pianist Vivian Choi. The Adagio introduction started thinly, with both violins and viola, before the piano began. Almost a minute into the piece, the cello entered, creating a rich, vast sound required to transition into the Allegro Moderato. Beach’s compelling use of textures never fail to evoke thoughtfulness from both performer and listener, although a heavier hand with the piano tends to lend its ideas more successfully than in this performance.
The Adagio brought impressive individual finesse from each instrument, although as an ensemble, the communication, overarching line, and color suffered until the climactic moment, when all musicians looked up from the score for what seemed like the first time in the movement. The technical prowess of the Allegro vivace impressed, supplying moments of precision and impeccability from Bollinger, leading into an energized fugal section that brought the quintet to a close.
Arthur Berger’s Quartet for Winds in C Major, a bright beacon of light to the night, featured Artistic Director/flautist Deborah Boldin, oboist Jennifer Slowik, clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, and bassoonist Rebekah Heller. Berger’s playful, Americana, Copland-esque sound animated the chapel with a deep sense of conversation sparking from the group. This all-ladies ensemble dazzled, showing enormous enthusiasm, contrast, balance, and character.
The all-women trend continued in selections from John Harbison’s North and South, Book II, including Mackenzie, Slowik, O’Connor, Heller, violinist Ayano Ninomiya, violist Melissa Reardon, cellist Sarah Rommel, and double bassist Susan Hagen. Mackenzie’s soprano evoked the jazziest of sounds, bringing a comedic lift as the text called for it, O’Connor’s zestful clarinet brightened the stage, Ninomiya’s violin engaged the crowd, and altogether, a strong sense of ensemble formed. Harbison’s cycle, based off poems by Elizabeth Bishop, composed the songs between 1995 and 1999. The only living composer of the evening, Harbison’s lyrical songs offer a mix between jazz and classical techniques.
The main event came in the setting of Copland’s Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments. Although it is most frequently heard with full orchestra, the work was originally intended for these smaller forces. Martha Graham commissioned it for her ballet with funds from the Coolidge Foundation; it premiered at the Library of Congress. The premise of the ballet, as detailed in the Boosey & Hawkes published score, is as follows:
A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older neighbor suggests now and then the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of the human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.
Chameleon’s interpretation riveted, offering a seemingly entirely new way of hearing a familiar piece, as it is rarely performed as originally intended. One could hear instrumental pairings much differently in the chamber setting. Notably, the violin and flute duet in the first section rang new and unfamiliar, creating an even more open sound for which Copland is primarily known. Strikingly, pianist Choi fled from the “accompanist” role, providing interesting insight, clarity, and distinctive character to the group. Simple Gifts surprised, fullness of sound and intent seemed singular, yet still felt like home.
“Creating an American Sound” perhaps seemed an inadequate appellation for a program in which every composer had white skin. Four were men, four were dead, and all were born in the Northeast. America is not limited to the United States, let alone the Northeast. Additionally, while it may not be convenient to think beyond composers New England and New York, during tumultuous times that question the validity of people who have lived in this country for a great majority of their lives, it is necessary to consider embracing more cultures in the arts.
Rachael Fuller is an administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied piano and music theory. By night, she is a practicing musicologist and concert enthusiast.