In its 21st season, Chameleon Arts Ensemble continues to put on dazzlingly-played, interestingly programmed concerts, using a strong core group of musicians and distinguished visiting artists. Saturday and Sunday at the First Church in Boston, the ensemble impressed us with “where past and future meet.” Artistic director and stellar flutist Deborah Boldin chose a winning assortment five pieces by well- and lesser-known composers.
Cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer and pianist Vivian Choi gave an impassioned reading of Richard Strauss’s three-movement (1883) Sonata in F Major, Op. 6. Ever-controversial as a person and composer in his lifetime, Strauss (1864-1949) inspired some fairly feverish opinions, as in a 1907 letter in The New York Times about Salomé: “It is a detailed and explicit exposition of the most horrible, disgusting, revolting and unmentionable features of degeneracy that I have ever heard, read of, or imagined.”
Strauss was only 19 years old when he completed the cello written for Hans Wihan, the Czech cellist, to whom Dvorák dedicated his Cello Concerto 12 years later. A heart-on-the-sleeves romantic work, its 26 minutes flew by with generous passion. One could easily imagine a top singer spinning out Strauss’s lyrical vocal lines with such tenderness and expressivity, and drama.
I can’t recall another Boston performance of Earl Kim’s harrowing (1981) “Now and Then,” although apparently the Chameleons performed it in one of their early seasons. This might well be due to the razor-sharp rhythmic precision necessary to pull off Kim’s spare, inspired text setting. Even without its horrific backstory, Kim’s trenchant work takes on significant power from texts from Chekhov (“The Seagull”), Beckett, and Yeats (“The Tower”). Kim has written:
Nagasaki on August 10, 1945, just twenty-four hours after the bomb was dropped. On August 8, 1981, some thirty-six years later, almost to the day, Now and Then was completed in its first version for voice and piano. Although each of the songs was conceived in a day, the years that intervened between Nagasaki and their completion seemed to have been necessary before they could be set down.
The texts which I finally settled on cover a range of poetic images dealing with the death of friends, the innocence and vulnerability of daffodils, the loneliness of one’s final moment, and Chekhov’s prophetic vision of an earth which for thousands of years … has borne no living creature.
Kim’s music is often praised for its unique combination of expression and means: “I am reducing everything to its maximum,” he noted, cryptically. His colleagues at Harvard described his music as “inhabiting a sound-world which indeed is sparse but never desolate, elegant though touch, refined yet bold; elusive but precise; beautiful in its complexity, profound in its simplicity.” Soprano Mary Mackenzie, flutist Deborah Boldin, violist Scott Woolweaver, and harpist Franziska Huhn electrified with their brilliance.
Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906/1923), written at the end of his first compositional period, went through numerous transformations. The five instrument version for “Pierrot” ensemble) done here (Flutist Deborah Boldin, clarinetist Gary Gorczyca, violinist Ayano Ninomiua, cellist Sarah Rommel, and pianist Vivian Choi) was arranged by Anton Webern, from the original version for 15 instruments. As one might expect by music treated by Webern, the quintet version is a somewhat stripped-down version of his teacher’s work. Schoenberg admired Webern’s ability “to express a novel through a single gesture, happiness through a single breath.” Although the traversal was excellent, this first-time listener’s ears were just getting used to Earl Kim’s sound world, and would have been overwhelmed by any Schoenberg—at this point, still pre-intermission.
The four-movement Clarinet Quartet by Penderecki (born 1933) came as the big surprise of the afternoon, in the elegant reading by clarinetist Gorczyca, violinist Ayano Ninomiya, violist Woolweaver, and cellist Rommel. Definitely the favorite work of the afternoon for many of us, let’s hope Boldin brings it back often.
Finally—although most concerts would have ended at this point—came a stellar take on Beethoven’s (1770-1827) four-movement Piano Trio in C Minor, Op.1, No. 3 featuring Ninomiya, Popper-Keizer, and pianist Sergey Schepkin (who just launched “Glissando,” an 8-concerts-on-Sundays-at 4 series, also in the First Church of Boston). Schepkin and Popper-Keizer impressive as we would expect, and Ninomiya fit right, especially in fiery finale. The second, variation movement gave complete joy, as one of the many gems of this long but magnificent afternoon.
Chameleon’s returns on December 1 and 2, with two pieces by Stravinsky (including L’Histoire du Soldat), Saint-Saëns, and Joan Tower.
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.