Chameleon Arts Ensemble shows many colors in bracing mix of old and new

February 1, 2015 at 11:15 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble performed Saturday night at First Church.

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble served up a wide-ranging program of new and old music Saturday night at First Church in Boston.

Five works in all, spanning over a century of compositional development, made for a rich and bracing program. The newest of the pieces heard, compositions by Joseph Phibbs and Andrea Clearfield, revealed that chamber music continues to be a sturdy vehicle for poignant emotionalism and intimate expression. And the works by Prokofiev, Dvořák, and Lutosławski showed why the careful treatment and presentation of those characteristics have made some music memorable, even timeless.

Joseph Phibbs’ Flex (2007), heard in its U.S. premiere Saturday night, hasn’t been heard enough to determine whether or not it will endure, though given its uncharacteristic form and fine, attention-grabbing craftsmanship one hopes it will receive many repeated performances.

The English composer writes in a sinewy and even quirky musical language, and Flex, scored for flute, violin, cello, and piano, is a nimble work that brims with nervous energy. Cast in a single movement, the piece is made up of smaller duos and trios for different combinations of the four instruments. The music propels strongly forward, never quite settling down for a rest. Lightening fast runs swirl about the musical texture and transform, often unexpectedly, into long, heavy phrases before taking off again in a flurry of gnarly riffs.

Chameleon musicians Deborah Boldin (flute), Jessica Lee (violin), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), and Elizabeth Schumann (piano) delivered a bold and exacting reading while deftly handling the music’s nearly never-ending points of dialogue. Lee and Popper-Keizer traded motives with sharp efficiency, and Boldin, in response, delivered her angular runs with palpable energy and velvety tone. Topping it off was the twinkling piano filigree, which Schumann played with light touch and dexterity.

Dialogue of another kind marked the other contemporary work of the evening, Andrea Clearfield’s Three Songs for oboe and double bass (1997). These three delicate miniatures, musical depictions of poems by Pablo Neruda, featured fine playing from oboist Nancy Dimock and double bassist Randall Zigler. The two musicians curved melodies around each other for soft silhouettes of phrases in first of the set, “Body of a Woman.” The melodies of the second, “The Light Wraps You,” unfolded in gentle waves. The duo found a groove in the finale, “Every Day You Play,” which was toe-tapping in its rollicking 7/8 meter.

Similar energy also characterized the concert’s opener, Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes for clarinet and piano.

The five short movements that make up this piece resulted from the composer’s work with Polish folk music in the 1950s, a style he kept alive in part to appease the censors of the Soviet Communist Party. Yet the work is a delightful affair that warrants repeated hearings, the music brimming with darting melodies, spiky harmonies, and percussive syncopations.

Clarinetist Gary Gorczyca and pianist Elizabeth Schumann proved equal partners in their reading of the work. They handled the bouncy, criss-crossing themes of the first movement and side-winding phrases of the third and fifth with rippling energy. In the second movement, Gorczyca lofted a haunting melody, and Schumann’s accompaniment, sounding full in its pearly depths, added weight to the mysterious harmonies of the fourth movement.

Some of the sharpest playing of the evening came in the Chameleons’ performance of Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult Quintet in G minor, Op. 39.

This barnstorming music had a brief life as the score for the ballet “Trapèze.” But in 1924, Prokofiev, unhappy with the result, transformed the music for an unusual quintet of oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass.

The music, though, never lost its dance-like character. In fact the piece still comes across like ballet music, its six movements like closed-ended episodes that seem to twirl about in place. Throughout, oboe and clarinet trade fitful melodies that sound with an almost klezmer feel.

Elsewhere, squirrelly runs twist and turn over an amusingly simple boom-chick accompaniment. The third movement is like a collage of independent voices that sound at once, while the fourth features mysterious succession of searching chords. Though it all, the Chameleon musicians—Nancy Dimock (oboe), Gary Gorczyca (clarinet), Jessica Lee (violin), Scott Woolweaver (viola), and Randall Zigler (double bass)—gave the work a bold and precision-cut reading.

Making up the meat of the concert’s second half was Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87, a work that combines stirring lyricism with the propulsive rhythms of dance music.

The most Terpsichorean of the movements was the third, where the musicians—Lee, Woolweaver, Popper-Keizer, and Schumann–performed the waltz-like melody with a gentle lilt. They dug in for the furious statements of the trio.

Most affecting was the second movement, where Popper-Keizer rendered his opening melody with a hearty, lyrical tone. Schumann proved a graceful presence at the keyboard, playing her parts with sensitive and delicate touch. The ensemble was at its finest in the big theme central to the movement, which sounded resplendent.

The quartet, though, got off to a slow start. The first movement was played with polish but lacking in firepower. The musicians seemed to warm up as the piece progressed, delivered a finale that sparkled to the finest detail.

The program will be repeated 4 p.m. Sunday at the Goethe-Institut.

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