Chameleon Arts Ensemble illuminates the twilight of Romanticism

October 7, 2012 at 1:30 pm

By Keith Powers

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble performed a wide-ranging program Saturday night at the Goethe-Institut. Photo: Susan Wilson.

Now in its 15th season of elegant and adventurous programs, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble celebrated Saturday evening at the Goethe-Institut in the Back Bay with a concert that quintessentially reflected its mission. Entitled “midst the twilight path,” with the “twilight” being Romanticism, the ensemble offered works ranging from Brahms to Kirchner, with a hint of serial technique in between.

A piano quintet began the evening, an early (1905) fragment from Schoenberg. In one incomplete movement, Ein Stelldichein (A Rendezvous) strongly suggests that a longer piece was planned—especially given the instrumentation, with three solo instruments (violin, clarinet, oboe) ready to take center stage.

Schoenberg sketched out additional ideas, and others have realized them, but Chameleon chose merely to play the fragment—an oddly appropriate way to begin a concert. Leaving listeners frustrated for more, Joanna Kurkowicz (violin), Nancy Dimock (oboe) and Gary Gorczyca (clarinet) wove its airy, moderate tempo meanderings into an elusive narrative. This is pre-tone row, user-friendly Schoenberg, exploring descending scales and balanced with a middle section ostinato that the three “soloists” passed among each other. Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello) and Vivian Chang-Freiheit (piano) anchored their stage-mates.

Bolting abruptly from early Schoenberg to late Leon Kirchner, the Chameleons played the American composer’s Duo II, a tremendously demanding piece for violin and piano, bravely undertaken by Kurkowicz and pianist Qing Jiang. The duo offered virtuosity in every measure, with the work’s unusual juxtaposition of pitches, and almost random insertions of pizzicato and ponticello mid-phrase.

Duo II proved a demanding exercise both for players and listeners. Characterized by plentiful doublings, the single-movement work offered many opportunities for give-and-take. Kirchner suggests little in the way of form, and listeners expecting tension to build here or a figure to be developed there are left unfulfilled. But there is a brilliance in phrasing and suggestive, fragmentary textures, and some of those hints were left unrevealed.

Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, established a sense of commonality. Beautifully expressed by soprano Elizabeth Keusch, with Qing Jiang behind her at the piano, the five songs explore with painful exposure Wagner’s infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a patron. The poems have sentimental charm, the music equal simplicity. But with a sublime interpreter like Keusch, all of it seemed believable.

The texts—written by Mathilde, inspired by Tristan—are sweetly innocent: an angelic vision, a stolen moment alone, a dream. The music is equally naive, save for one moment of pathos at the end of “Im Treibhaus” (In the Greenhouse), where the accompanist offers sonic hope to the lovers, a rising scale in major, then trenchantly deflates it with a minor chord conclusion. Keusch sang with inspiration—great artists can raise the level of modest creations, and with lyric intensity, Keusch did just that.

After intermission, Berg’s Four Pieces, Op. 5 offered another pre-serial work. These economical but architectonic settings for clarinet and piano are quirky and angular, each note essential, Gorczyca aimed each phrase in the right direction.

A bold but generally unfocused reading of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor closed the program. Kurkowicz, Qing Jiang and Popper-Keizer were joined by violist Scott Woolweaver in this gypsy-flavored chestnut. The work at the piano was steady and often flashy; give Qing Jiang credit for clarity, as her stringed companions too frequently wandered through careless intonation and missed attacks. On the whole, however, the brilliantly conceived program showed intellectual heft and musical inventiveness—what we’ve come to expect from Chameleon.

The program repeats Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. chameleonarts.org; 617-427-8200.

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