Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting with the program

I was so taken with the previous concert I heard from the Chameleon Arts Ensemble (at left) that I hurried back to hear their next offering, "A Hundred Onward Years," last weekend at the Goethe Institute. Alas, I came away slightly disappointed this time - although less with the playing than with the program.

Musical programming is always an art, and not a science, of course - and on paper I'm sure the Chameleons felt they'd met the loose standards of your average chamber music concert: Beethoven and Schumann rubbed elbows (or crossed bows) with three interesting but more obscure composers, Lou Harrison, Charles Martin Loeffler, and Aaron Jay Kernis (the one on this list I really didn't know), with a catch-all title making a vague nod to something like coherence. But the Harrison piece, "Songs from the Forest," turned out to be little more than a fragment, done in Harrison's familiar (if appealing) manner, while the Kernis piece was dropped due to illness among the players (and was replaced by the solid, but not overly interesting "Lament for cello and piano" by Ellen Taaffe Zwillich). This left an intriguing piece by Loeffler, a truly great piece by Schumann, and a rather quotidian one ("Serenade in D Major") from Beethoven.

The Chameleons themselves were in generally fine, but perhaps not always inspired, form. "Songs in the Forest," although marred by some rather flat poetry reading (of Harrison's rather flat poetry), still conjured the light perfume of gay exotica we expect from the composer, and was amusingly coy in its early-50s references ("Artemis" seemed to be the subject of the poetry, instead of the more honest "Asian boys in the trees"). With the Loeffler, things briefly got more ambitious, and more interesting; this composer deserves more of a place in Boston programming (given his long service in the BSO), and both "The Pool" and "The Bagpipe" were sophisticated little gems of mournful, slightly sinister mood, expertly played by Nancy Dimock (oboe), Scott Woolweaver (viola) and especially Vivian Chang-Freiheit on piano.

Next came the Beethoven, which, alas, proved to be just about the dullest thing that genius ever wrote. In "Serenade in D Major," the great Ludwig Van seems content for the most part to toss off light pastoral motifs pretty much until we beg for mercy (there are seven movements). The piece develops some complexity about halfway through, which the Chameleons elucidated with skill; still, for the most part their playing, while "light and airy" as you could want, felt pretty conventional (and flutist Deborah Boldin did tend to pound out those top notes).

The second half of the program proved a similarly mixed bag. It was good to hear something from the Pulitzer-winning Zwilich - only it would have been nicer to hear something more challenging than the straightforwardly poignant "Lament for cello and piano," which seemed to under-utilize Ms. Chang-Freiheit and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer. But with Schumann's "Sonata No. 2 in D Minor," the Chameleons finally began to show what they could do. Written very near the end of this great chamber composer's life, the piece is a lyrical, yet tonally dense and subtly melancholic work that's always compelling yet somehow thematically elusive. Violinist Joanna Kurkowicz kept its many facets in superb balance in a very committed performance, ably supported by the exquisitely attentive playing of Gloria Chien on piano. It was nice to hear this well-intentioned if meandering evening at least go out with a satisfying musical bang.

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