Artistic Director Deborah Boldin wrote that “How silver-sweet sound,” her latest sweet and savory thematical conceit for Chameleon Arts Ensemble, “…tells stories and offers rich and layered listening experiences as characters, scenes, and circumstances melt into notes, phrases, and feelings. [inspired by the] the wit, wisdom, and poetic power of history’s most remarkable storyteller.” One could say, though, that the concert at First Church Boston Saturday night (repeating there Sunday afternoon) contained a minor ellipsis. The mostly apt title line, quoted Romeo and Juliet, yet she included no music inspired by that play.
How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!
And the concert was hardly all pastoral and sweet, though much sounded bucolic; our attending ears rather experienced a dynamic range the reached into a fully symphonic realm and emotions stretching well beyond young love.
Wunderkind Erich Korngold, feeling confident and secure of his style six months away from the premiere of Die tote Stadt, debuted his incidental music for Max Reinhardt’s Vienna staging of “Much Ado About Nothing” in May of 1920, seemingly already anticipating his essential tinsel-town stint. Violinist Claire Bourg and pianist Miki Sawada took on the duo version of the 17-minute suite taken from the production, enfolding in four glorious varied and effective movements, storytellers’ engagement in characterization. In warmly secure tones, Bourg soared as the Maiden in the Bridal Chamber, a romantic song without words with the elegance of Rosenkavalier, but without the cloy. Sawada wrapped her attentively in sumptuous harmonies. A Prokofievian military march followed, leavened with some pre-echoes of the coming attractions of his music for the romance of Robin Hood and Maid Marion. The lustrous and generous play in Garden Scene made pastoral romance tangible. Sawada’s soft work retained concentration and allowed Bourg to produce a diva’s diminuendos. Masquerade: Hornpipe danced with unabashed and flawless delight.
Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folk Songs evoke the Bard of Avon only to the extent that they share the origins in that green and pleasant land. RVW certainly did brush up on his Shakespeare from time to time, of course. His Serenade to Music immortally sets Lorenzo’s speech from the “Merchant of Venice”:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Co-pastors Nancy Dimock, on English horn and pianist Mika Sasaki, led the grateful congregation though the English pastoral countryside to London Bridge with relaxed minstrelsy. Dimock’s long, seamless phrases resonated with haunting nostalgia. Saaki partnered the horn with colorations at times suggesting a consort of lutes. The short set ended allegro vivace, tripping fantastically.
Then five pairs of hands set the stage for eight musicians. Chameleon consistently fields a lot of players for its concerts—15 this time! Terrible Beauty, British composer (b. 1943) David Matthews’s op. 104, somehow blended a snatch of the Iliad (in Homeric Greek) with a scene from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Mary Mackenzie’s gleaming soprano took on the dramatic heft required to put this monodrama across the footlights while also maintaining steady projection in the quieter, intimate moments. The instrumental ensemble of flute (doubling bass flute), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), string quartet, and harp, colored with the dramatic potency one would expect in Schoenberg’s Erwartung. In the introduction, imagining ancient Greece, and conjuring Debussy’s Bilitis cycle to this writer, Mackenzie sang her story with broad expression over a wide tessitura and morphing timbres as Ina Zdorovetchi’s harp spun spider silk filaments around her.
The main section begins:
When she first met Mark Antony,
she pursed up his heart upon the river of Cydnus.
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne.
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them.
Matthews swayed us with a mysteriously rollicking barcarolle, but at other instances, his intense rapture approached the vividness of an opium dream, responding to the Shakespearian imagery. The sub ensembles often exchanged the multihued memes: the bass flute and bass clarinets low and ethereal murmurs, interludes from a string quartet, the harp’s urgent thrumming, The players allowed Mackenzie’s pianissimos to float but she possessed the heft to soar over the rare tuttis with uninhibited to-the-rafters fffs.
Thomas Adès excerpted character sketches of the Court of Naples from his opera The Tempest, scoring the passing episodes for clarinet, cello, violin, and piano. Caliban makes no menacing appearance on the shores of this set, rather it opens with glorious banners flying. A solemn procession ensues. Then calls and responses: a haunted clarinet solo from Gary Gorcyca precedes a rippling piano interlude, cello harmonics led to violinist Elizabeth Fayette’s dispatch of somber new theme with Menuhinesque elegance. Another dreamy clarinet solo unfolded before a slow section portentously passed by as a dirge. After a wandering chordal section, Court Studies, episodic in a good way, faded into silence.
Though it had little to do with the show’s Shakespeare theme, no one could gainsay the status of Elgar’s late, great Piano Quintet in A Minor as a mainstay of the chamber music repertoire. To his typical “there will always be an England” grandeur, the composer added modern urgency, and imagination. Perhaps he had heard Verklärte Nacht, and had learned how to pile on the emotional baggage, though of course Schoenberg by this time (1917) had gone far beyond the harmonic language of his Transfigured Night.
The ghostly dark introduction (slated to reappear in the last movement) opens the work in its most Enigmatic moments, but that quickly turns marchlike. A gorgeous romantic trio of two violins and piano comments, almost in a bivalent manner that could be outlawed in Florida. Then a fugal section? Why not? Nothing enigmatic now, more Mendelssohnian perhaps.
The Adagio caressed with the profundity of ‘Nimrod.’ Sarah Rommel’s affecting cello solo was answered and amplified by the other players. Together they pelted us with a torrent of angst before a clearing welcomed us to the safety of the countryside at nightfall.
The Andante-Allegro saturated the church with post-Romantic longing, leading us to imagine Brahms on something mood-altering. Frequently imitative or contrapuntal, yet always possessed of gallant gestures, Elgar squinted demands urgency and consuming heat. Chameleon’s worthy interpreters crescendoed and accelerated tumultuously to the Grandioso ending…animando al fine indeed! Forget about that final ritard.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer