IN: Reviews

Musical Valedictions

by

Gabriel Langfur, program annotator

Surprising delights from pieces I didn’t realize I needed to hear have come across to me in top-notch performances from the Chameleon Arts Ensemble over the last decade. Illuminating program notes by Gabe Langfgur, and imaginative, and cleverly conception by its flutist and artistic director, Deborah Boldin. She characterized the group’s last concert of the season, as “in the twilight air,” swan songs and farewells, examining the passage of time through the lens[es] of 5 master composers.”

Sunday’s concert, the second of two at First Church in Boston last weekend opened with a luminous performance of the rarely offered Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120 by Fauré. If I had to guess who composed it, Fauré would probably not immediately come to mind, but no one could mistake its French sonorities. The A-Team of Eunae Koh (violin), Raphael Popper-Keizer (cello) and Gloria Chien (piano) gave a magical account, particularly in its dreamy second movement. Chien mesmerized. The second of the three movements came across in turns, dreamy, heartfelt, humorous, and tender. 

From the Kennedy Center notes by Richard Freed:

In his chamber music, which spanned virtually the entirety of his creative life, from First Violin Sonata of 1876 to the String Quartet of his final year, Fauré displayed a gift for lyric expressiveness and dramatic intensity. He composed two each of violin sonatas, cello sonatas, piano quartets and piano quintets, and, just before the String Quartet, the single Piano Trio… By the time Fauré composed this work, the slow movement at Annecy-le-Vieux in the summer of 1922, the two outer ones in Paris the following spring, he was in failing health and had become deaf. There is nothing in either the Trio or the subsequent String Quartet, however, that resembles self-pity or even resignation, let alone a consciously valedictory gesture.

Soprano (Mary Mackenzie), oboe (Nancy Dimrock), clarinet (Gary Gorczyca), violin (Koh), and cello (Popper-Keizer)- gave a terrific performance of Eliot Carter’s (1908-2012) “Tempo e Tempi,” eight songs set to poems by Italian poets Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo, Giuseppe Ungaretti. Each instrument received a chance to solo with the singer, so textures stayed fresh. Mary Mackenzie proved a most compelling and often hypnotic deliverer of these haunting poems.

Carter wrote of these songs

Fascination with Italian music, literature, and visual arts has grown ever since my mother took me to Rome in around 1924. This song-cycle is a small gesture of gratitude to Italian culture and its musicians that have shown such an interest in my work.

A few years ago, Raffaele Pozzi (one of the directors of the Pontino Festival, which dedicated two of its manifestations to my work) sent me the two poems of Montale included in this cycle, asking me if I would set them. The first, Tempo e Tempi, pleased its Italian audience so much that I was encouraged to set others. Using the instrumentation of the first (oboe, clarinet, violin, and ‘cello), I chose poems by Ungaretti and Quasimodo, each referring to the passage of time.

The rather long first half (Chameleon programs tend to be generous) ended with Ravel’s intriguing Sonata in G Major with the glorious Gloria Chen and the brilliant violinist Robyn Bollinger producing thrills equal to what Chien achieved in the same sonata last week with her husband Soovin Kim, which I reviewed HERE.

Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) apparently was very fond of the harp…and women. (I learned from the program notes that in 1911, Box married his childhood sweetheart, had two children, and settled in Dublin, for about six years, after which he left them for a pianist, Harriet Cohen. A few years later he met another woman, Mary Gleaves, and for the next 20 years, maintained relationships with the two of them). Irish folk-idioms also pervade much of his instrumental music. The Irish harp, which is smaller than its mainland European cousin, has its own shape, tradition and tone quality. While Bax did not use the Irish harp in his own music, he wrote nine works involving the conventional harp to convey an Irish pastoral atmosphere.

Bax composed his Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp in 1916 (shortly after Debussy wrote his famous sonata for the same instruments) to memorialize the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. When the Irish Republican Brotherhood organized an uprising against British rule on Easter Monday. With about 1,800 men, the group seized the General Post Office and other strategic points in Dublin, and proclaimed the birth of the Irish Republic. British troops arrived, suppressed the rebellion in a week of street fighting, and executed the leaders. These executions excited a wave of revulsion against the British, turned the Irish leaders into martyrs, and led to the birth in 1921 of the Irish Free State. Shocked by the event, particularly by the execution of Padraig Pearse, one of the Irish leaders and a personal friend, Bax poured his feelings into one-movement of poignant eloquence rather than a funereal dirge.

This shimmering, moody trio requires great skill to pull off (I’ve played it more than 20 times). The sensitive Franziska Huhn, harp; Boldin, flute; and Scott Woolweaver, viola made short work of its difficulties. It flew by, as if in a dream. Huhn produced a multitude of colors—breathtaking in the upper registers. 

Brahms G Major String Quintet, opus 111 of 1890, which biographer Jan Swafford calls “his gay and poignant farewell to music,” produced a sensation at its premiere in 1890. Though the composer imagined that he had only one piece left to compose before he would retire, he continued for another 6 years and 11 profound opus numbers. The chameleon regulars, violinist Robyn Bollinger, Koh, Woolweaver, Popper-Keizer, plus guest violist Jessica Bodner treated the packed audience to a robust and suitably bittersweet account of one memorable tune after another. Bollinger, who shows authority and real beauty, again impressed, but all five did justice to their many solos, and one sensed that all the Chameleons were born for chamber music.

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.

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