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.