Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Time after time

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble (above) opened its season last Saturday with "Music and All Silence Held" at the Goethe-Institut - but the program seems to have been star-crossed; just days before the concert, the group's lead violinist, Joanna Kurkowicz, had to drop out due to a hand injury. This left the group scrambling for someone who could step right into the Mozart String Duo No. 1, as well as someone who could handle the stunning technical demands of the violin part in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.

No doubt time did stop for the group, at least for a while, but unbelievably, replacements were found at the last minute: Kristopher Tong of the Borromeo String Quartet stepped into the Mozart, and Gabriela Diaz took over the Messiaen.

So the concert was saved; the only problem for the Chameleons was that these two visiting stars shimmered brighter than anyone else in the Ensemble.

Which doesn't mean I'm not still a fan; I am. Yet I've worried before that there's not always a whole lot of passionate verve in evidence between the Ensemble's various talents, and that problem popped right out of the opening Mozart. The piece is a wonderfully crafted double virtuoso turn, and is of some added historical interest because Mozart composed it under someone's else name - that of Michael Haydn, composer-brother of that Haydn (to whom Mozart had recently dedicate a famous set of quartets), who had been unable to finish a commission due to illness. The duo is also unusual in that the viola's part is as complex as the violin's (Mozart played the instrument) and there's a good deal of competitive call-and-response worked into its delightful contrapuntal textures.

Immediately the visiting Tong dove right in with infectious energy, scampering brilliantly through his part and all but mischieveously fluffing his tail in his partner's face; here was a guy who clearly expected a little friendly competitive play on stage. But violist Scott Woolweaver was definitely not playing ball; his performance was technically clean, but uninspired, and he never even so much as glanced in his partner's direction. So what do you call half a duo? I guess an "uo."

Things began to look up, however, with the next piece, Debussy's Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano, played by Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello) and Gloria Chien (piano), both of whom are more team players. The piece, composed at the end of Debussy's life, is an oddity, at first hauntingly, if haltingly, lugubrious, then almost feverish; legend has it the image in Debussy's mind was of the heartbroken Pierrot railing at the moon. Popper-Keizer was, as usual, dazzling on the piece's agitated pizzicattos, but somehow it was Chien who made the deeper impression with her moody, tentative rumblings on the keyboard.

Here the concert's "theme," as it were, began to take shape, in an emphasis on modern French chamber music, and especially its growing concern with the issue of time in the experience of music (or maybe just experience in general). For the composer of the next piece on the program, Toru Takemitsu, while Japanese, was inspired to become a composer by a French song he heard playing on an officer's phonograph while in the army (and later settled on Debussy as his musical model). This influence is quite evident in the late And then I knew 'twas wind (inspired by a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, although it's not a song), which is a self-consciously poetic, subtly exotic affair with "Asian" grace notes and glides accenting an episodic, Debussy-esque core. It's a lovely, if light, piece, and was charmingly brought off by Deborah Boldin (flute), Scott Woolweaver (viola), and Anna Reinersman (harp).

As a finale, the Chameleons had chosen Messiaen's famous Quartet for the End of Time, the piece in which the Debussy tradition, during the crucible of WWII, lifted off into a new level of mysticism and temporal experimentation. The tale of its genesis is well-known: trapped in a prisoner-of-war camp (although not, as legend would have it, a concentration camp) Messiaen fashioned the quartet for the instruments that were available among his fellow captives - a clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The quartet's first performance - in the camp, before its inmates and guards - has become a touchstone of modernist culture.

But it seems to me that Messiaen must have been incarcerated with three virtuosos, or that the concert must have been close to cacophony. For the Quartet makes wild demands of its string players and its clarinetist (Messiaen played the piano part). The clarinetist in particular must persevere through one of the most challenging solos in the literature, "The Abyss of Birds," which consists of long, single notes drawn out to intense crescendos, and then interrupted by bursts of seemingly-improvised birdsong.

The title of the quartet refers not only to a climax of the Book of Revelation, but also to the cultural thunderclap that was the Second World War, and Messiaen's abandonment of diatonic musical "time" for looping, symmetrical structures built on modes extrapolated from Debussy's whole-tone scale (and exemplified in nature by birdsong, which became his obsession). But the key to the piece, for all its intellectual rarification, is a sense of both physical destruction and transcendent spiritual ecstasy - and this, I'm afraid, is what the Chameleons failed to provide. Clarinetist Gary Gorczyca hung onto the throughline of the "Abyss of Birds," for instance, but failed somehow to etch its central contrast between the dying voice of time and the ensuing exultation of larks (below, with the following Scherzo, in a performance by the Olivier Messiaen Quartet).

Gorczyca wasn't alone; even the reliable Rafael Popper-Keizer seemed to struggle with the slowly-unwinding power of the "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" (thankfully, the Chameleons provided the audience with the work's program; without it, the Quartet is impenetrable). Only guest violinist Gabriela Diaz brought the required feeling to the second coming of the "Jesus" theme, in the closing "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" (I was not surprised to learn she'd played the work before, and had worked extensively with Pierre Boulez, one of Messiaen's most influential students). Like Tong, she brought a level of passion to her playing that the Chameleons seemed to slightly lack; perhaps we should hope for more missed appearances in the future, the better to shake up this perhaps-too-staid ensemble.


  1. As a longtime, loyal fan of the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, I strongly disagree with some of the comments of this reviewer. The Chameleons are a true musical gem of Boston. Their gifted performances are original and adventurous. Staid is not a word that comes to mind when one thinks of these musicians.
    Granted, the performances of both guest artists were magnificent. I give extraordinary credit to both Tong and Diaz, as well as the ensemble, for making the last-minute substitutions seamless and superb.
    In particular, I disagree with the reviewers comments about the opening Mozart piece. Kristopher Tong’s physical exuberance at times seemed almost cartoonish. Had Scott Woolweaver matched his antics even halfway, the two would have looked like a pair of dancing marionettes. I cannot be the only audience member who actually appreciated Woolweaver’s more laidback performance as a much-needed balance to Tong’s playfulness.
    I remind the reviewer that this was a duo, not a duel – no thrust and parry needed.

  2. Bridgitte, I'd first like to say that being a loyal fan doesn't mean one has to be a blind fan. True, "staid" may not be quite the right word to characterize the Chameleons as a group, because they program adventurously. "Slightly withdrawn" might be a better way to describe them as individual presences. I have to say that while I've seen them play quite a bit more cohesively than they did last weekend, I don't think I've ever heard them really come together with a warm sense of brio. And isn't that an essential part of being an ensemble, at least some of the time?

    As for Kristopher Tong - "cartoonish"? Come off it. And as for Scott Woolweaver's performance being "laid back" - not really. It was simply far more contained, with an inwardness that could perhaps be described as ever-so-slightly tense. He, and the Chameleons in general, could afford to lighten up.

  3. I enjoyed the concert immensely. I thought all of the musicians performed exceptionally well, especially in light of the last minute substitutions for the violinist in the first and last pieces.
    I cannot tell from the postings which performance Bridgitte attended; it appears as though the reviewer attended the Saturday performance. I attended the Sunday performance and I have to agree with Bridgitte - Kristopher Tong's physical exuberance seemed a bit over the top. Woolweaver expressed plenty of energy and warmth in his performance; he was both relaxed and engaged, not the least bit withdrawn or tense. And I noted significant eye contact between the two performers.
    I have attended a number of Chameleon performances over the past several years and have never been disappointed, so I guess that makes me a loyal fan as well. It certainly doesn't make me "blind" and I don't think it does Bridgitte, either. To me, loyal just means going to their concerts whenever I can.
    And, to repeat the reviewer's own words, "perhaps we should hope for more missed appearances in the future . . ." of one of the Chameleon artists (illness or injury ?!?) "the better to shake up this perhaps-too-staid ensemble" just seems mean-spirited.

  4. Well, different strokes for different folks, I suppose. I like warm, exuberant playing - you don't. Of course maybe Sunday's performance was less chilly. But no, I'm not wishing illness or injury on the Chameleons, and I certainly hope for a speedy and full recovery for Ms. Kurkowicz (and I do apologize to her if she thought I sounded heartless, I can see how she'd take it that way). But I also hope for more of a sense of ensemble from this ensemble.

  5. I do enjoy warmth, which I did not find lacking in any of the musicians. And exuberance, if it is not overdone. So, as you suggest, it is possible that the two performances had a different tone to them. I am, however, very glad to hear that you have not placed a curse on the Chameleons :)

  6. Like Chris, I attended the Sunday concert and agree wholeheartedly with his/her comments. In the end, it appears that Mr. Garvey and I were sharing our opinions on different performances. I apologize for not having made a note of which performance I attended in my original comments.