Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s Saturday concert was a study in grief, a rhetorically varied gathering of pieces that dealt, openly or obliquely, with the loss of life and love. The most compelling were two diametrically opposed portraits of death by a pair of eminent American composers, George Crumb and George Rochberg, who for years shared a home institution (the University of Pennsylvania) but little stylistic ground.
Crumb’s “Apparition” is a sequence of death-haunted songs for soprano and piano on Walt Whitman poems, interwoven with vocalises in which first nature and then death appear in sound. Crumb is famous for extending instrumental and vocal techniques, and “Apparition” shows how kaleidoscopically brilliant his sounds could be, even in the restricted model of the vocal duo. Spirits emerge from the brushed and plucked piano strings and the singer’s wordless intonations. In Whitman’s famous Lincoln elegy, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,” Crumb drains the poem of its grandeur and replaces it with a kind of uneasy gloom. The soprano’s repetition of the words “Dark mother” were quietly, epically unsettling. The performance, by soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit, was sensational, a fact the audience clearly appreciated.
Rochberg’s “Contra mortem et tempus” (“Against death and time”) was written in 1965 after the death of his son, Paul. It was that tragedy that caused the composer to break decisively with serialism, which in those days was a big deal for a prominent academic composer. The piece, for violin, flute, clarinet, and piano, is a collage-like assemblage of musical scraps – displaced notes, long melodies, furious outbursts — that seem to follow no conventional plan. In fact, it’s exactly the music’s refusal to be centered, fall into order, that makes it so poignant. If it lacks Crumb’s dazzling colors, it is also a more heartfelt response to death, and the performance — by violinist Kristin Lee, flutist Deborah Boldin, clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, and pianist Vivian Choi — left a deep impression.
Between those two came Schubert’s heartache-laden “Auf dem Strom,” in which the balance between Mackenzie and horn player Whitacre Hill never resolved satisfactorily. The concert opened with a somewhat hard-edged account of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in an arrangement for wind quintet. It closed with the Piano Quintet in C minor by French composer Louis Vierne, a reaction to the death of his son in the First World War. Angst-ridden from start to finish, this is a piece whose sincerity of expression is indisputable, even if its originality and inventiveness are not. The musical execution, though, was brilliant.
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