Love hurts in Chameleon’s enterprising un-Valentine program

February 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble performed Saturday night at First Church.

In the end, Pierrot stood alone and dejected. His declarations of love having failed to win the heart of Columbine, he battled with the self-assured Harlequin only to face cruel rejection when Columbine chose the other man.

Not all love stories end happily. But that was just one side of the subject the Chameleon Arts Ensemble explored at First Church Saturday night in a versatile program of dramatic and introspective music written about or inspired by love stories.

The story of the lovesick Pierrot–a commedia dell’arte character who became a paragon of romantic pathetique, served as the basis for the most vividly-played work of the evening, Thea Musgrave’s Pierrot Dreaming.

A dramatic work for violin, clarinet, and piano, Musgrave’s Pierrot was the latest in the Chameleon ensemble’s season-long exploration of the Pierrot theme (their final concert will culminate with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire.)

Pierrot Dreaming is program music on a grand, Berliozian scale where each instrument stands for a character in the love triangle. And violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, and pianist Gloria Chien proved to be effective actors throughout the eight movements of the intensely chromatic score.

Kurkowicz, with her rich violin sound, portrayed Pierrot’s anguish and loneliness as well as his desperate weeping and pleading for Columbine’s love in the music’s dark phrases. O’Connor’s cool but round-toned clarinet was a perfect match for Columbine’s more reticent nature, which Musgrave achieved through elaborate technical lines as well as cold, distant sustains. The two instrumentalists were frequently involved in passionate dialogue, trading and overlapping phrases as Pierrot attempts to woo the unimpressionable Columbine. At first appearance, Gloria Chien’s delicate piano playing seemed tame for the boisterous Harlequin. But she provided sharp and commanding playing in the fifth movement when Harlequin attacks Pierrot. Kurkowicz’s moaning violin captures Pierrot’s poignant sorrow at the end.

If Pierrot Dreaming was darkness, Larkspur, a work by Chinese-born composer Fang Man, was light.

Composed in 2004, Larkspur is a trio for flute, viola, and harp that, like Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, draws upon the timbre as sources. Through shimmering glissando, quarter-tone shading, and high-tessitura instrumentation, Man explores the multiple impressions conveyed by the title–a word that, the composer noted, “represents a flower as well as color.”

Despite some fine playing, the work seemed to lack focus. Chameleon artistic director Deborah Boldin (flute) and Ina Zdorovetchi (harp) maintained a strong dialogue throughout the single-movement work. But Scott Woolweaver’s viola was often lost in the texture, possibly due to the writing since much of his music was set in the instrument’s high range and played sul ponticello.

Chien and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer conveyed more vivid impressions with their inspiring performance of Janăček’s Pohádka, which opened the concert.

A short sonata based on characters from Vasily Zhukovsky’s epic poem The Tale of Tsar Bendvei, Pohádka explores the love story between Prince Ivan and Princess Marya as they struggle against Marya’s father, the demonic immortal Kashchei. Janacek’s score, though, is not a literal reading of the story. Instead, his music offers emotional reflections and impressions of the subject.

Popper-Keizer played with an inspiring and singing tone, Chien with a clean piano touch in the music’s cascading figures. The dialogue between the two musicians flowed freely from the charged and aggressive moments to the mesmerizing softer ones.

To close the concert, Chameleon musicians–violinists Kurkowicz and Katherine Winterstein, violists Woolweaver and Peter Sulski, and cellists Popper-Keizer and Joshua Gordon–tackled Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2 with a warm tone, graceful approach to the music’s ebb and flow, and delicate handling of the musical light and shade.

Brahms’ Sextet is symphonic in scale and one of his most personal works. He penned the work five years after breaking his secret engagement to the songstress Agathe von Siebold. Reeling from guilt and longing for redemption, Brahms wove a motive of her name into the music–AGABE.

The elegiac first movement featured the performers in many fine duets that rose from Brahms’ thick texture. Popper-Keizer performed a lyrical cantabile with Kurkowicz, and Sulski and Kurkowicz traded motives with tender phrasing. The musicians also exhibited fine control of the contrapuntal lines in the second movement.

The third movement presented the greatest challenge for the ensemble. Here the slow, more exposed phrases often lacked clarity and uniformity. Attacks in the subtle passages seemed to lack confidence, which contributed to some intonation problems.

But the sextet executed the music’s bold sections with aplomb. They approached the final movement with particular energy and a crispness that brought Brahms’s soul-searching work to a redemptive conclusion.

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

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