Chameleon Arts Ensemble concert themes are always more poetic than painstaking, so it wasn't surprising that Deborah Boldin, the ensemble's artistic director, admitted via program note that last weekend's program, “words and phrases found,” was only loosely linked around the idea of “musical prose.” And, given how rich the group's concerts tend to be, it wasn't surprising that another theme manifested itself in performance: an anthology not of prose, but of ways of telling a story.
In Leoš Janácek's Violin Sonata, the method was a folk-derived call-and-response, violinist Eunae Koh and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit trading ideas, their interplay at its best when the dialogue was at its most oratorically grand. But in the final Adagio — an artifact, perhaps, of the Sonata's World War I vintage — the piano offers lyricism only for the violin to answer with phrases of sharp, skittish anger, a rift left unhealed.
Bernard Rands’ “Prelude” and “. . . sans voix parmi les voix. . . ” — two movements of a work-in-progress (the title derived from a Samuel Beckett poem) — emphasized context by establishing one and then, occasionally, taking it away. Scored for the Debussyan combination of flute (Boldin), viola (Scott Woolweaver), and harp (Franziska Huhn), the lush, darting melodies glinted with eloquence when set over slower-moving, accompanying layers, but turned chaotic when that layer disappeared. The piece is rhapsodic, ruminative; the performance was bold and precise.
Clarinetist Kelli O'Connor, violinist Jessica Lee, and pianist Elizabeth Schumann made the tall tale of Igor Stravinsky's “L'Histoire du Soldat” (in its suite version) a little bit taller. Tempi were deliberate — the story growing more digressive in the retelling — and the polyrhythms fell into loose, rambling orbits. The music's reiterative cul-de-sacs turned calmly obsessive, Stravinsky's narrative exhausting all possible angles.
By contrast, Clint Needham's 2005 “Axioms” was all anecdotes. A septet (Boldin, O'Connor, Koh, Wollweaver, and Chang-Freiheit joined by cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and percussionist William Manley) essayed seven short movements — each channeling an aphorism-inspired mood — most movements presenting a textural idea, then embroidering it into a full-ensemble climax. Rather than rigorous argument, “Axioms” seemed to coast on its vocabulary: ingratiatingly tonal, skillfully busy.
Finally, the whole toolbox: Johannes Brahms's Piano Trio No. 2 (Op. 87), a thoroughly novelistic piece, musical paragraphs and chapters arranged such that they continuously and simultaneously expand the setting while focusing the plot. Lee, Popper-Keizer, and Schumann gave a lean and steely reading, forgoing interpretive annotation for clear enunciation. A good story can hold its own. You can always tell.
Chameleon Arts Ensemble
Deborah Boldin, artistic director
At: First Church Boston, Saturday
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.