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Chameleon Tells 100-year-old Tale


Stravinsky 1910

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble, under flutist-director Deborah Boldin, once again showed its capacity for imaginative programming, this time centering on Stravinsky and his French period, particularly honoring the centenary of the epochal chamber ballet l’Histoire du soldat (premiered September 28, 1918, in Lausanne,)

The concert in the First Church Boston led off with Stravinsky’s seldom-heard Concertino for string quartet, composed in 1920 at about the same time as the Symphonies of wind instruments and sharing some of its rarefied atmosphere of repeated folklike melodic figures, ostinati, and mixed diatonic dissonances. Lively with a few brief slow sections and a quiet envoi single movement, the Concertino’s spans about six minutes; the performance radiated the players’ obvious pleasure. Someone said to me that it sounded like a Bartók quartet, and the crunch-chord aliquot was comparable, but Bartók’s quartet style at this time was actually more chromatic where Stravinsky’s is bitonal. Maybe this well-tuned group — Robyn Bollinger and Eunae Koh, violins; Scott Woolweaver, viola; and Joshua Gordon, cello — will give us Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for string quartet of 1914 one day.

Joan Tower’s Petroushskates for five instruments rings some agreeably fluffy changes on the ostinato patterns of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911). (About another piece that cribbed from that work, Stravinsky once wrote, “I am flattered by all this attention, of course, but would prefer to receive royalties.”) Some Ravelian arpeggios added to the overall busy sound. Deborah Boldin (flute), Kelli O’Connor (clarinet), and Vivian Choi (piano), joined Bollinger and Gordon, violin and cello, almost creating a Pierrot ensemble, and their lighthearted, even skaterly, performance got a chuckle of understanding after the last staccato chord.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), a Romantic and even neoclassical composer who emblemized French music in Europe and America for decades, always remembered that as a child he had heard Mendelssohn conduct, but he lived long enough to be revolted by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and to permanently blackball Debussy from the Institut de France. A first-rate pianist, he wrote brilliantly for his instrument, and this quality was evident in the decidedly improbable but entirely successful Septet for string quintet, piano and trumpet, op. In a well-known story, Saint-Saëns, when offered the commission, said that it would be easier to compose a concert for 25 guitars, but he accepted it anyway, and produced this Septet in four short, terse, elegantly melodious movements. The trumpet’s role is less central than the piano’s, but it is still significant, with fanfares, blended accompanimental notes, and occasionally a real melodic function. Rodney Marsalis fearlessly used the mellow B-flat trumpet most of the time, and the E-flat trumpet for the higher-register passages. Randall Zigler, double bass, filled out the ensemble. The excellent notes by Gabriel Langfur mention “a marvelous blend of a 17th-18th-century dance suite and 19th-century lyricism,” which tells a lot about the piece; the titles of the four movements — Préambule, Menuet, Intermède, and Gavotte et Final, with the first and last movements each including bright fugato sections, tell even more.

After the intermission came the complete Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), “to be read, played, and danced by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments.” Ten people who want to stage this famous work can manage it, orchestra and all, on the flatbed of a truck; last night’s un-staged traversal did include a Narrator, the baritone James Demler, who read all the actors’ parts as well as the stage directions, using the original text of C. F. Ramuz in an English version by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black. (At Lincoln Center ca. 1970, Aaron Copland was the Narrator, Elliott Carter the Soldier, and John Cage the Devil.) The miniature orchestra which carried off this difficult but pellucid score — without a conductor and with no outright mishaps and only a few shaky moments — included Kelli O’Connor, clarinet; Damian Primis, bassoon; Rodney Marsalis, trumpet (using a C instrument); Gabriel Langfur, trombone; Ayano Ninomiya, violin; Randall Zigler, double bass; and Matt Sharrock, percussion. l’Histoire is really one of the focal points of music history in the 20th century. Not only does it crystallize Stravinsky’s language of rhythmic counterpoint even more lucidly than does The Rite of Spring (Les noces was five years down the road); it gives new meaning to the sound of instrumental chamber music; and it represents in a distinct way the birth of neoclassical harmony. The “Great Chorale” in Part II takes well-remembered phrases from the Bach-Luther Ein’ feste Burg and reconstitutes the fragments with polytonal harmony. The ostinato of solo violin and plucked bass in “By the Brook” illustrate how one can hear G major and A minor simultaneously. As for the Faustian organization of Ramuz’s fable, it includes a fatal card game with the Queen of Hearts, drawn perhaps from Alice in Wonderland but looking forward to the graveyard scene in The Rake’s Progress. A good deal of the 20th -century in music is summarized in this monument to miniaturization that André Hodeir dared to call “a musical cocktail.” Congratulations to the Chameleon Ensemble for giving us a fine and inspired program with a brave l’Histoire du soldat at its center.

Repeats on Sunday, December 2, at four o’clock; don’t miss it!

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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  1. Kudos to James Demler on his virtuoso portrayal of all three parts. Always crystal clear, vocally, as to which character was speaking, I also admired his smooth and efficient staging choices. It was especially gratifying to have his musical skills put to good use on the few passages in the score where rhythmic precision is called for. Several typically treacherous spots were handled with confidence and ease, and his ability to project over the music was never in doubt. Jeremy Irons would be proud!

    Comment by Robert — December 2, 2018 at 6:32 pm

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