Once again choosing an eclectic mix of chamber music primarily from the last two centuries, including a world premiere, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble featured four unfamiliar works and one chestnut evoking vivid and contrasting emotions. On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Boston’s First Church, Chameleon advocated persuasively for making these discoveries more familiar.
Zoltán Kodály’s short Sonatina for cello and piano, from 1922 instantly charmed the audience in the hands of up-and-coming pianist Evren Ozel. His light and sparkling rendition gave the opening passages room to breathe, neither hurried nor ponderous. Long-time Chameleon cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer joined in with fluid, lyrical phrasing, almost inviting us to hum along despite the harmonic complexity. Throughout, the two maintained a tight dialogue, precisely trading off phrases even in the later, more impassioned passages.
Composer Jeremy Gill, in attendance for the world premiere of his Winternacht for flute, viola, and harp, received a deservedly effusive round of applause. He was inspired by the poem of the same name by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, but, as Gill explained in his statement beforehand Winternacht is not so much a setting of Trakl’s poem as a response to it, evoking the mood and imagery of the poem rather than recreating it verse-for-verse.
The harp opens with descending arpeggios as the viola and flute scurry, evoking the winter wind, like a more menacing version of John Luther Adams’s arctic visions. As the music unfolds, the harp changes character, and sets out a march rhythm—played with rigorous precision by Ina Zdorovetchi—depicting the journey of Trakl’s winter traveler. The flute’s melodies, not quite tonal but elusively song-like, wander but never feel aimless thanks to Deborah Boldin’s taut phrasing. A series of episodes ensue, alternately meditative and stormy. In the second half of the piece, the tension slowly escalates, all three instruments becoming slowly more agitated, at one point all three of them playing wintery descending arpeggios, leading to a finale of trance-like intensity.
Im fremden Land, a 2003 piece by the French composer Philippe Hersant, was by far the most pessimistic score in the concert; Hersant states that he was moved to write the five-movement composition for clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano upon hearing of the death of a friend. In the opening movement, the strings work together as a quartet, expressing a nostalgic yearning, while the piano provides an ominous percussive backdrop, and the clarinet interjects with aggressive and even sarcastic outbursts. The second movement is, if anything, even more sarcastic, the clarinet leading all the instruments in a vulgar, ironic Totentanz. The third movement offers some relief, opening with a meditative sequence of piano chords; yet even here, the violins play strained, almost strangled melodic lines conveying great anguish. As Land moves toward its conclusion, the clarinet breaks into what is very nearly a series of jazz licks, and the string quartet intones a solemn chorale, before ending quietly, the clarinet’s outbursts becoming sighs, the piano’s insistent rumblings becoming a gentle rhythmic pulse, the music settling into resignation. Throughout, clarinetist Gary Gorczyca stood out. With so many deliberately ugly sounds, the clarinet part could easily have slipped into mere noise, but it never did.
After a first half dominated by tension and anguish, Heitor Villa-Lobos’s playful Quintette en forme de chôros for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn (or, in its original version, English horn) from 1928 set a lighter tone for what followed. The five instruments drop in and out, melodic lines converging and diverging in a constantly varying texture. Over the course of the single movement, a series of episodes of an anecdotal, spontaneous character unfold, with many opportunities for virtuosity. Hazel Dean Davis’s navigation of the many rapid horn passages particularly impressed.
The ensemble’s take on the Mendelssohn String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87 exhibited a freshness and energy that brought out the requisite expressiveness without exaggeration. The Adagio struck a particularly fine balance, its march rhythms setting the stage for the violin’s tragic declamations, which Robyn Bollinger rendered without melodrama but also without retreating into mere tastefulness. High spirits returned for the finale, bringing this weekend’s concert to a triumphant close.
Quite aside from the strength of the performances, which were excellent throughout, it is the quality of Chameleon’s programming that stands out. The pieces informed each other and offered a coherent arc, from lightness to somberness to joy. The various compositions’ common influences—neither Kodály nor Gill, for instance, hide their affinity for Debussy—allowed the audience to acclimate to this weekend’s sometimes-unfamiliar sounds. Mendelssohn’s Quintet returned us to more familiar territory of the 19th century while also retracing in miniature the program’s journey from light to dark and back again.
The audience’s enthusiastic reception of this weekend’s concert shows that listeners will appreciate unfamiliar music when it is presented well, played empathetically, and placed in a meaningful context. This reviewer, for one, eagerly awaits the second of Chameleon’s two “Up Close” concerts on May 1st, followed by their final concert of the season on May 21st and 22nd, offering more works that deserve to be known and are rarely heard elsewhere, let alone in such energetic and polished performances.