Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Music from chameleons

Can you find the Chameleons in this picture?

During the Chameleon Arts Ensemble's ten-year history,the group has become known for the uncanny ability to morph (like its namesake) from one musical color to another. A typical Chameleon concert leaps from style to style and even century to century with confident aplomb, and last Saturday's popular concert at the Goethe Institute, "Transcendent Music I Have Heard," proved no exception: the program ranged from the year 2000 to the 1853, and from Penderecki to Brahms.

But this once, perhaps, the Chameleons weren't entirely sure-footed. Or perhaps they simply weren't always leaping in synch. The opening musical offering, Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, was one of the composer's last works, written during the Great War, and features the shimmering atmospheres he was famous for (sometimes pushed to ecstatic extremes), undercut by a growing anxiety and doubt. The Chameleons did well by both of the trio's modes, with Scott Woolweaver in particular clearly in virtuosic control of the skittering viola line. But the sonata also fascinates (or should fascinate) as a tapestry of motifs and phrases, with musical ideas being passed with exquisite facility between its three voices, and here the Chameleons' separate performances never quite made this subtle architecture cohere.

The larger forces mustered for Krzysztof Penderecki's Sextet (2000) were actually more unified, and gave this alternately chilling and piercing little poem of devastation a powerful reading. Penderecki was made famous by his massive Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and the Sextet, while more conventional in musical content than the Threnody, nevertheless seems designed as a kind of companion piece for European Jewry; its opening section is thick with a poignant cries from the clarinet (which sound a bit like Stravinsky doing klezmer) cut down by a dark second theme on a remorseless march. The following "Larghetto" section is, however, more ironically haunting than mournful; indeed, the horn is actually taken offstage to call - from what seemed an increasing distance - for a weighing of moral responsibility rather than simple sympathy. The Chameleons seemed to understand the piece through and through, and there was astonishing work from Gary Gorczyca on clarinet (screaming at times from the very top of its range). Still, the sextet's central idea - which I take to be that the horrors of the Holocaust must perforce dwindle into sad historical argument - couldn't quite forestall the awareness that our very distance from the Holocaust somehow doubles back into a second consciousness of our distance from the cultural frame of the Sextet itself. The Chameleons described the piece as one of the first masterpieces of the current century, but it felt like one of the last masterpieces of the last one.

There were no quibbles to be made, however, about the group's final performance of Brahms's Piano Trio No. 1. The trio was written on the cusp of Robert Schumann's suicide attempt (an event of immense personal import to Brahms, who at the impressionable age of 20 was already emotionally entwined with the Schumanns), and then thoroughly revised by the composer some thirty-six years later. The resulting amalgam is somehow like a palimpsest of the essence of Brahms: its surging romantic emotion is controlled and complicated by classical means. But what's perhaps most startling about the trio is its seeming size; this is one of those Brahms chamber works that almost rivals a symphony in scope and power. It's also, despite its title, essentially centered on the cello, and the Chameleons have a superb one in Rafael Popper-Keizer, whose singing tone scanted neither the work's exuberance nor its sobering depths. He was brilliantly supported, however, by violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and pianist Gloria Chien (even if at first Chien had to shake off a little of Penderecki's pallor). The final movement was just as it should be - enveloping and transporting, and the audience showered the Chameleons with approval at its close.

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