Chameleon Arts Ensemble shows true colors in Schoenberg-centered program

April 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble performed Saturday night at First Church

The music of Arnold Schoenberg rarely frequents chamber concerts in Boston. Rarer still is the composer’s music the centerpiece of a wide-ranging event.

But that was the case Saturday night when the Chameleon Arts Ensemble filled the intimate sanctuary at First Church with an adventurous program of works by composers who influenced, and who were influenced by, the composer of Pierrot lunaire. 

The focal point of the evening, Schoenberg’s String Trio, Op. 45, featured violinist Jesse Mills, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, who performed with aplomb.

Composed in 1946 after Schoenberg suffered a near-fatal heart attack, the String Trio is filled with non-sequiturs where sharp, needle-like sonorities interrupt compressed lyrical moments in a long single movement. Overall, it is a piece laden with tension, but imbued with subtle shades of tonality.  The strings sounded appropriately shrill in the prickly passages and played with rich tone in the dense waltz passages interspersed within Schoenberg’s quirky composition.

Mills and Popper-Keizer teamed up with pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit for an equally sharp rendering of the Trio in D Minor, Op. 3 by Schoenberg’s friend, teacher, and eventual brother-in-law, Alexander von Zemlinsky.

The symphonic grandeur of the three-movement trio featured the musicians in expansive dialogue. The strings, throughout, put across the colorful score with a creamy, yearning sound. Chang-Freiheit answered with deliberate touch and pearly tone.

To open the concert, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble offered works from three of Schoenberg’s California pupils.

Soprano Mary Mackenzie took to the organ loft, where she intoned John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. With breathy tone, she rendered the three-note setting of James Joyce’s text–a sliver from Finnegans Wake–with cool distance. Percussionist William Manley, with open palms, supplied a steady stream of syncopated rhythms on the closed lid of the center-stage piano, which gave a soft, bodhrán-like accompaniment suited to Mackenzie’s vocalizing.

Flutist and Chameleon artistic director Deborah Boldin joined Manley for Lou Harrison’s First Concerto for Flute and Percussion. More duet that a traditional concerto, the three-movement piece featured the musicians in criss-cross polyrhythmic dialogue. Manley provided stately, even-handed rhythmic drive on tom-toms, wood block, tambourine, and gong (all played with mallets). Boldin performed the music’s wandering lines with an affecting tone, especially in the lower register.

Earl Kim’s delightful Illuminations, a cycle of 15 short Arthur Rimbaud texts for piano and soprano, paired Mackenzie with Chang-Freiheit.

Mackenzie brought a ringing power to her voice for much of this set but adjusted appropriately to explore the songs’ light and shade. She sweetened her voice for the heartfelt “Magic flowers droned,” the seventh in cycle. And for the opening of “I remember silver hours and sunlight by the rivers,” she returned to the charming wistful sound of the Cage, never losing focus or intensity in the process. Chang-Freiheit handled the sparse, Debussy-esque accompaniment with grace.

It was a special treat to hear Chang-Freiheit with Nancy Dimock (oboe), Kelli O’Connor (clarinet), Margaret Phillips (bassoon), and Whitacre Hill (French horn) in an elegant reading of Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat Major for piano and winds, K. 452.

The winds achieved a sweet ensemble blend in the outer movements to match Chang-Freiheit’s august playing. And the musicians imbued the second movement with romantic swells that added extra weight to the thick wind texture of Mozart’s score. Dimock and O’Connor were especially adept in trading phrases while Hill’s horn soared effortlessly above the woodwinds. And Phillips supplied stately presence to the running bass lines that was felt as much as it was heard.

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

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