One of the safest bets you can make is that a Chameleon Arts Ensemble concert will be extraordinary. This weekend (I heard its Saturday night concert), in one of its 20th-anniversary concerts, The Chameleons outdid themselves. This unqualified rave joins my many enthusiastic reviews of this group.
Chameleon’s award-winning programs, imaginatively curated by its fearless leader, flutist Deborah Boldin, intermingle unknown and new works along with beloved classics. Saturday’s outing followed this formula, with the awe-inspiring Quatuor pour la fin du temps by Messiaen as the irresistible lure.
Deborah Boldin opened with Gustave Samazeuilh’s (1877-1967) arrangement of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, best known for its glorious flute solo that soars above the composer’s lush harmonies. (I learned from Gabriel Langfur’s always-superb program notes that Samazeuilh had studied this piece with Debussy, and eventually served as the composer’s “press agent”). Boldin played gloriously; any orchestra would be happy to have her take this seductive solo. Pianist Vivian Choi certainly excelled, but I sorely missed Debussy’s colorful orchestration, especially the two harps. Yet each musician took a turn to shine, and Boldin set the bar very high for her colleagues.
In David Ludwig’s (b. 1974) seven-movement Pleiades oboist, Nancy Dimock and Vivian Choi, each deftly delivering one virtuoso lick after another. The composer describes this work:
The Pleiades were seven sisters from Greek mythology, born of the titan Atlas and the sea-goddess Pleione. As the story goes, they were chased by the hunter Orion but transformed into starts by Zeus on behalf of their father, who was busy holding up the world. The seven-star cluster Pleiades has played a major roll in seafaring and navigation since the Greeks gave them their name that we still use today. Each sister had her own distinct characteristics, and that inspired my seven-miniature oboe sonata. In the middle of composing the piece in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck and was a constant presence in our minds. As I wrote the last movement on the goddess Halcyone, the “Queen who Wards Off Evil Storms,” there was a resonance there with the devastation in New Orleans. The ending is of hope for rebirth and renewal, and perhaps a plea for forgiveness, as well.
In my first introduction to David Ludwig’s work, I was quite impressed. He was trained at Curtis Institute of Music, where he now serves on the faculty, and has a rather distinguished family tree including his grandfather, Rudolf Serkin (a longtime Curtis President) great grandfather, violinist Adolph Busch, and uncle pianist Peter Serkin. There are several recordings of this piece on YouTube, but none better than that of this virtuosic duo, who dispatched this often shimmering and enchanting work with great flair.
An A Team of strings—violinists Francesca dePasquale and Yoo Jin Jang, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer—gave a beautiful performance of Haydn’s Quartet Opus 76, No. 4, “Sunrise.” In my relatively old age, I am falling under the enchantment of Haydn’s string quartets. What a delight to hear this comparatively rarely heard example (of the more famous Op. 76s), and to begin what I expect will be a long love story with its slow movement. The presence of Francesca dePasquale made it great treat. She and Jang matched tones extremely well, and the quartet sounded like they had worked together for years (20, in the case of the violist and cellist).
It had been 40-odd years since I heard Olivier Messiaen’s (1908-1992) Quartet for the End of Time live, but it has never lost its grip on my heart. I listened many times to Tashi’s landmark recording of it (Peter Serkin, piano; Richard Stolzman, clarinet; Ida Kavafian, violin; Fred Sherry, cello) but there is nothing to replace a live performance, and this one was every bit as spooky as Tashi’s.
Like many legends, the legend of the first performance is only partially true. Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker:
“The clarinettist Rebecca Rischin has written a captivating book entitled “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet.” Her research dispels several long-cherished myths about the 1941 première. As Messiaen told the story, he and three friends performed under the most trying circumstances—using dilapidated instruments, including a three-stringed cello—and won the hearts of five thousand hardened soldiers. In fact, the instruments, while inferior, were adequate to the task, and the crowd was more like three hundred. In Rischin’s telling, the Quartet is less a triumph of individual genius and more a collective creation. Messiaen wrote every note, certainly, but the music would never have existed without the collaboration of the prisoners—and guards—of Stalag VIIIA.”
The Quartet’s eight movements concern a Biblical passage from Revelations:
I saw a mighty angel descend from heaven, clad in mist; and a rainbow was upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He set his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and standing thus on sea and earth he lifted his hand to heaven and swore by Him who liveth for ever and ever, saying: There shall be time no longer; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God shall be finished.
Messiaen concluded his commentary on the movements, “It is total love. Its slow rising to a supreme point is the ascension of man toward his God, of the Son of God toward his Father, of the mortal newly made divine toward paradise.”
Throughout, this otherworldly and disturbing music moved us mightily. The tight ensemble dazzled, the solo movements took our breath away. I tried to imagine myself shivering in the barracks of Stalag VIII A on January 15, 1941, in Görlitz, a prisoner of war camp in Silesia. No one present can ever forget this life-altering experience.
A writer in The Guardian mused: “To play as slowly as written, performers need a great deal of trust in the music: it is easy to doubt it can sustain itself over such a vast span. One has to fundamentally alter one’s sense of pulse, to pass over the individual notes and follow a broader beat that is so slow as to feel almost unbearable. It is a bit like walking in super-slow motion. In fact, it is so slow that it can be a challenge just to count to eight.” Clarinetist Gary Gorczyca, whom I’ve long admired, was spellbinding in the clarinet solo “Abyss of the Birds;” his amazing technical control, eerily progressed from almost inaudible to double forte, tossing of jazzy riffs, really taking ownership of this movement. In his solos movement, cellist Raphael Popper-Kaiser exhibited rhapsodic tenderness and delicacy. The young violinist Yoo Jin Jang made abundantly clear in the rhapsodic last movement why she already had won countless competitions. Vivian Choi capped off her long evening of dispatching really challenging piano parts with admirable distinction.
A thousand thanks to the Chameleons for this magical evening, for the introduction to David Ludwig, for Haydn, Op. 76, #4, and for the priceless opportunity of hearing Quatour pour la fin du temps in such radiant perfection.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.