Halloween permits and even encourages self-expression in so many directions, not excluding the fantastic, the morbid, the anti-social, even the horrific. Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, led by Artistic Director Deborah Boldin, has established a fine reputation for creative programming over the past 25 years, and it is no coincidence that last weekend’s shows at First Church in Boston encompassed a number of subjects suited to Halloween, into which the ensemble also skillfully mixed well-known repertoire with less familiar and new.
Although Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, for clarinet and piano are most often played on the cello, clarinetist Gary Gorczyca and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit delivered the set in its original form. Unlike the composer’s Fantasy Pieces for solo piano, these are mood pieces with no titles. The performers painted a tone-picture of sweet melancholy in the first (“Tenderly and with expression”) evoking Schumann’s introspective and dreamy alter ego Eusebius. In the second (“Lively, light”) Gorczyca and Chang-Freiheit enjoyed the contrast between the outer sections and the central one: the former alternated between surging ahead and reflection while the latter’s playful triplets, delightfully passed back and forth between the two instruments, cast care aside. The closing section (Fast and fiery) was in the mode of Schumann’s other alter ego, Florestan: passionate and outgoing. Though the piece presents many challenges to cohesive ensemble (phrases beginning off the beat with clarinet starting ahead of the piano), the artists smoothly surmounted them all and shone particularly in the brilliant accelerando of the coda.
A true Halloween evocation, the Gargoyles of Notre Dame by Boston composer Andrew List (b. 1956), called for the most extensive instrumentation on the program: flute and piccolo, clarinet and bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, and a considerable array of percussion. The respective players were Deborah Boldin, Gary Gorczyca, Eunae Koh, Scott Woolweaver, Sarah Rommel, Vivian Chang-Freiheit, and Piero Guimaraes. The composer stated that during a residency in Paris he decided to create a musical portrait of the cathedrals’s famous [Viollet le Duc] gargoyles, having observed that in the daylight they perform their dual function of warding off evil spirits and sluicing rainwater, but at night “they come to life and run all over the church dancing, screaming and singing!” It opens with a quiet atonal haze of sound (the pianist plucking strings before playing keys) from which shapes, i.e., melodic solos, gradually take form. As the grotesque figures “come to life” the tempo quickens, and the dynamics increase. The extended climax is a stirring danse macabre punctuated by crashing piano chords and powerful chiming bells. With the presumed approach of dawn, the proceedings become more subdued, and the coda features a final “extended technique”: in the final section List has the players sing a ghostly “Amen” several times in parallel perfect intervals (fourths, fifths, and octaves), somewhat evocative of medieval organum but with modern progressions. This is clearly a demanding contemporary work, frequently without a perceptible meter, and the musicians are to be congratulated for their atmospheric, convincing performance with no conductor.
The “spook factor” reached its high point in the Conte fantastique d’après “Le Masque de la Mort rouge”, a musical recreation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” by French composer Andre Caplét (1878-1925), a close friend and associate of Claude Debussy and, incidentally, a conductor at the Boston Opera Company between 1910 and 1914. Poe enjoyed greater popularity in Europe (particularly France) than in his native United States, and clearly Caplet quickly saw the dramatic and musical possibilities this particular tale offered for a musical setting. Scoring the work for harp and quartet, the composer’s master stroke was to turn the harp’s angelic image on its head, making it represent ominous premonitions, racing pulses, and ultimately, the voice of doom: the “gigantic clock of ebony” which generates the only sound that can momentarily stop the festivities of the masked ball when it strikes the time every hour. The players (harpist Franziska Huhn and the string quartet of violinists Eunae Koh and Elizabeth Fayette, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Sarah Rommel) created foreboding with unstable harmonies in all parts, sudden large dynamic shifts, shivery pianissimo harp arpeggios, etc. Perhaps this section sets the scene of the countryside where ordinary citizens are dying of the Red Death because, after a pregnant pause, the music clearly takes us into the sealed-off castle where the beautiful people (in modern parlance) are celebrating their supposed safety from the plague with a grand masked ball, unconcerned about the suffering outside. The strings’ counterpoint of triplets, pizzicatos, trills, chords, and sustained melodies simulated multiple conversations and laughter while the showy harp part provided glittering high spirits and terpsichorean finesse. Though certainly a close spiritual relative of Ravel’s La valse—narcissism so extreme that it inevitably goes off the rails—Caplet’s work, originally for harp and string orchestra, preceded Ravel’s by a decade. After considerable revelry, the composer reintroduces the foreboding material of the opening, with the addition of eerie string harmonics, before twelve harp chords, striking midnight, announce the arrival of the Red Death and the gruesome demise of all the celebrants. Much of the final section is shuddery whole-tone harp glissandos reflecting Poe’s last sentence: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” However gifted Caplet was at reinventing the printed word with music, he required performers of great skill and commitment to tell the story; happily, he found them here.
The single-movement Piano Quartet of Cynthia Lee Wong (b. 1982) also took inspiration from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, in this case the first half of his story “Ligeia”. Here the author’s aim is not horror but sorrowful reminiscence with a touch of mystery: an old man describes his adored late wife Ligeia and recalls her death many years ago from an unspecified illness. The story dates from Poe’s 20s and can’t be included among his best—he devotes more than two pages to a description of Ligeia’s unequalled beauty and still more to her formidable intellect and erudition—but it spoke to the composer as she was undergoing her own grievous loss. Couched entirely in atonality, the work strikes one as portraying different shades of grief ranging from quiet misery to a breast-beating cri de coeur. Violinist Eunae Koh, violist Scott Woolweaver, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and pianist Mika Sasaki sensitively traversed these nuances, but it sounded more interesting than pleasurable. While Poe did write, “her features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship”, one nevertheless hoped to hear a genuinely beautiful harmony or turn of phrase, but in vain. As a study in varieties of psychic anguish, the performance succeeded, but Wong’s single-minded loyalty to Poe’s text, though admirable, is not calculated to attract a broad spectrum of concertgoers. Nonetheless, the composer, who was present, received warm applause from Chameleon’s audience.
The concert came full circle with Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 110. It is odd that this trio should be “one of his least-performed pieces.” Though only two years separate it from the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces, one can perceive more frequent sharing of thematic material among the instruments and greater interplay of moods. Elizabeth Fayette, violin; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; and Mika Sasaki, piano, handled the frequent transfer of themes smoothly and deferentially as in a three-way conversation. The first movement (Moving, but not too fast) is built on a web of motifs—one most prominently—which the players integrated skillfully. The lovely slow movement in E-flat major glowed with deep affection from all three artists who subtly played up the slightly more advanced harmony than the composer customarily used. After the tender first section, a more passionate, agitated mood took over for a time before an elegantly managed transition returned us to an elaborated version of the first theme. The scherzo was characterized by a sinuous theme in C minor, frequently doubled in two or all three instruments: the performers displayed flawlessly cohesive ensemble and well-coordinated dynamics. The G major finale (Powerful, with humor) featured the sunniest theme of the work interspersed with other, more introspective melodies, in the manner of a rondo. (According to the program notes, critics have faulted the movement as “episodic”, but the defining characteristic of a rondo is the continual return to the initial theme between multiple other themes, i.e., episodes.) The musicians heightened the harmonic tension and dynamics ahead of the final appearance of the main theme, finishing with an exciting flourish.
Though a good scare remains the sine qua non of Halloween, Chameleon Arts Ensemble amply demonstrated that a Halloween-themed concert could also encompass mood pieces, fantasies, and stories told in music.