Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston brought its adventurously programmed and artfully executed brand back to a grateful congregation of subscribers in First Church of Boston this weekend. The well-distanced space, voluminous for the 110 people admitted, gave us each 1,200 cubic ft. of air in which to breath and feel safe.
I don’t know how things went for the first performance on Saturday night, but on Sunday afternoon I heard great work…. for the first half. Absent the sometimes-inevitable speechifying, the show began quite promisingly.
Perhaps more than any other work for the genre, Barber’s Summer Music for Wind Quintet brings the ensemble down from its minstrel balcony divertissments into some satisfying and expectant intimacy with listeners. Though nearly always relaxed, it never releases its firm hold on us during its brief span of 12 minutes. The well-matched compatriots flutist Deborah Boldin, oboeist Nancy Dimock, clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, bassoonist Damian Primis, and French hornist Hazel Dean Davis, stood out colorfully against the gray, Paul Rudolf ribbed concrete blocks. The musicians individually and collectively dazzled us with intensity of inventive phrasing and coloring in their evocative storytelling. This was a Summer Music Day the Lord had made. They let us rejoice and be glad.
The rapture segued gently and inevitably into Kenneth Fuchs’s Quiet in the Land for a quintet of winds and strings, in which violist Caitlin Lynch and cellist Coleman Itzkoff joined the first three above named (though with Dimock now wielding an English horn instead of an oboe). Adding string colorations to the sounds of the winds made programmatic sense, since the wind players would entirely be giving way to the strings thereafter. Fuchs’s sensibilities in this work included a throwback lyricism similar to Barber’s. Rustlings and agitations in the cello and viola invited trilling warbles from the flute and clarinet. The English horn lead forth a plangent interlude that suggested yet another throwback, Randall Thompson. Could we hear this as another elegy for summer? Its intensity never wavered in either of its quiet or more outgoing varieties; passing interludes invariably resolved into radiant serenity. Fuchs impresses us as a friendly bard—serene but never underspiced. At the end, the pulse slowed as Quiet passed on, leaving us all in quiet understanding.
Trouble started in Kodály’s op. 12 Serenade. The work for two violins and viola, esteemed for its folkloric richness and idiosyncratic Hungarian qualities, should have danced a lively variant to the mood of the concert. Instead, in the Allegramente, we heard shakiness from one of the players before uncertainty seemed to become generalized. Standing while masked, Woolweaver apparently experienced dizziness; the show could not go on. As things transpired, we would not hear the concluding two movements of the Serenade. Try this performance if you want to enjoy it.
Bruckner’s Quintet in F Major from 1878.5, his single published chamber work[i], cannot be heard as a rehearsal for symphonic or concerto writing, as Brahms employed some of his own chamber works. Gestated at the time of the composer’s Sixth Symphony, it might rather be considered a sketch for a symphony that might have been…though no experts have suggested that. Its 45-minute duration certainly qualifies it for a weighty trigger warning such a symphonic quintet designation. Its Adagio places listeners in a cosmic place as profoundly sad as anything anyone ever wrote. It resembles the Bruckner symphonies in its episodic construction. He loved to mull and masticate his thematic statements with interruptions, harmonic transformations and beneficial mutations.
To put the whole across as no less than the sum of its five moving parts, even a crack ensemble needs lots of living and working together to clarify the episodes with a variety of attitudes from hyper-expressive to tragically withdrawn…and ensembles need collectively to master authentic Luftpausen, the musical-punctuation equivalent of semi-colons and commas. Bruckner can dance as well as galumph, and he apparently liked peasant girls (better than they liked him). There is much to depict, highlight, underline, withal, and much need to sell it; otherwise the Quintet can be more gratifying to play than to hear.
Unfortunately, the fates dealt two hammer blows to the ensemble Chameleon’s Artistic Director Deb Boldin charged with cooking up this very chewy portion: Cellist Coleman Itzkoff agreed to appear on short notice in place of the injured Gabriel Popper-Keizer, and violist Scott Woolweaver appeared not entirely himself. Nevertheless, the players all shared transcendently beautiful individual moments. Violinist Elizabeth Fayette dispatched cadenza-like passages with the flamboyant qualities of a supernova. Violinist Francesca dePasquale likewise projected serious engagement, as did cellist Itzkoff, Woolweaver and violist Caitlin Lynch. All the individuals proceeded with intention, varying tone from smooth, heartfelt and refined, to gritty and wild.
Periodic visions of brightness and joy could not entirely dispel Bruckner’s turgid gloom and relentlessness, though, and limpness tripped up some under-expressed slow passages. Tuning drifted astray more often than it should have. The piece ended with a roughed-up groove of tremolos in the lower strings underscoring a 17-fold cadence. No mistaking when it was over.
As usual, Managing Director Gabriel Langfur Rice’s essays help us get into the works they describe. Read them HERE.
[i] Bruckner’s student work from 1862, the String Quartet in C Minor WAB 111 was published in the 1950s and has been recorded several times. It may be worth hearing, though it doesn’t sound like Bruckner. Or maybe that’s why it’s worth hearing. Try HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer