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Great Lizardry Rewards Us Again

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Sebastian Currier’s Vocalissimus, a suite of 18 brief to even briefer, moody numbers for Pierrot ensemble plus percussion found well-honed advocates in the Chameleon Arts Ensemble contingent last weekend at First Church in Boston. The morphing lizards assumed an extraordinary range of colors and patterns over the course of the sometimes syllable-by-syllable disambiguation of Wallace Stevens’s short poem “To the Roaring Wind.”

What syllable are you seeking, Vocalissimus,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

Sometimes attacca, and at other times with place-signaling pauses, the 15-second to 3-minute movements described and conveyed distinctly shifting affects such as one would find in Schumann’s Humoreske (which refers to the Humors rather than humorousness) or his Kinderszenen…  one might subtitle the Currier collection, Erwachseneszenen

Dramatic and resourceful soprano Mary Mackenzie headlined with the right amount of theatricality— a knowing glance, a supple gesture, a faraway look, oracular certitude, crocodile tears —enough to ground us without saying “Look at me, I’m a diva.” At times, especially in Somnambulist, she seemed to bend pitches and gliss downwardly in a most expressionistic manner. She projected heartfelt pianissimos but never hesitated  to declaim “Speak It” with strident insistence.  Currier didn’t ask for extremely angular leaps, and the writing felt tonal, although it “threatened to fracture and recombine at any moment,” according to Brian Schuth in his 2016 review of the piece.

The seven players (percussionist Matt Sharrock with a massive arsenal almost doubled the apparent number) reveled in the chewy variety of the writing. The moods and techniques changed so frequently that every inventive riff remained fresh and surprising over the course of the half hour plus. I scribbled impressions: pointillistic churnings with cha cha, mambo Morse code, who’s on first?, polyrhythmic piano fantasy fadeout, fruit fly ostinati, broad nostalgia, consonants from winds and piano with vowels from the singer, Mother Goose simplicity on clarinet, piano turns tragic as stings enter. In addition to the abovenamed players, I salute flutist (and piccolo, I think) Deborah Boldin, clarinetist Gary Gorczyca, violinist Elizabeth Fayette, cellist Sarah Rommel, and pianist Miki Sawada for their technicolor realization of this extravagance of moods .

Click on the entire very agreeable work in a 1997 recording with the composer’s then-wife Emma Tahmiziàn at the piano  HERE. And have a look at a bar from the Somnambulist section at right.

The concert had opened with an account of Mendelssohn’s one and only Lied Ohne Worte for piano and cello (he wrote 48 for piano solo) with bolder force than one normally expects from this example of intimate domesticity. Broad-toned cellist Sarah Rommel often covered the limpid pianism of Miki Sawada, who emerged only briefly as an equal partner. I attribute the imbalance in part to the apparently newly dulled down voicing of the 7ft. Steinway (it had sounded much brighter on our previous encounters) and Rommel’s position with her back to the keyboard making any visual cues nearly impossible. 

The first well-tuned unisons and octaves in the bold opening of the closer, Brahms’s beloved Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34 from 1868, immediately spoke to the composer’s attainment of the compositional heft needed for a first symphony. Violinists James Thompson and Elizabeth Fayette, violist Scott Woolweaver, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and pianist Mika Sasaki reveled in contrasting the bold strokes with the reflective ones as Brahms kept piling on second themes, expositions, and recapitulations. In other words, they gave full value to storm and stress. Repose came most often from the ministrations of Popper-Keizer. In the lyrical second movement we experienced something of the consolation that Brahms depicted so movingly in the German Requiem: “For all flesh, it is as grass.” The scherzo courted danger with its tempi; we preferred that to a more careful approach. The profound poco sostenuto beginning of the fourth movement sang out with the intense purity of just intonation before Popper-Keizer caressed the big tune. His colleagues gathered around a blazing Roma campfire with him…culminating ten minutes later in that passionate presto which swept the field.

In my imagination, pianist Mika Sasaki, ever elegant and reposeful, took the sensible role of Clara to the beery Brahms of the lower strings and the volatile Robert of the uppers. The four strings, in other words, did not form a cohesive foursome. Rather the individuality of the players resulted in a grittier sonority than one expects from a standing ensemble. Nevertheless, we could enjoy committed Brahms playing in full measure.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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