Chameleon Arts Ensemble has well earned its name. Performing Saturday night on the low stage of First Church in Boston, the versatile and ambitious group put the audience eye-to-eye and ear-to- ear with music of the 20th century inspired by J. S. Bach.
Danish composer Per Norgard’s The Well-Tempered Percussionist, which reworks preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier, owed the most immediate debt to the Baroque master. Performed by William Manley and Aaron Trant, the sweet tone of the vibraphone juxtaposed agreeably with the more piquant marimba. Re-imagined in percussion colors, the meditative D minor prelude took on a touch of minimalism. The only detraction was the needling ring of the glockenspiel, too shrill for the gray concrete vault of First Church. The Baroque influence was also obvious in Saint-Saens’s Sonata in D Major for oboe and piano; oboist Nancy Dimock and pianist Vivian Choi flashed through breathless passages of counterpoint, impossibly fast but no less precise.
Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord has a genteel instrumentation, but there’s nothing genteel in its jagged, dissonant sound world. Harpsichordist Christopher Oldfather deftly explored the range of characters he could draw from his instrument: insistent and percussive, brooding and prickly, and finally quietly urgent in the Baroque dance rhythm pastiche of the final movement.
However, the pieces with the loosest connection to Bach stood out as not just correct, but transcendent of their form. Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet features a prelude and fugue as its first two movements, but this is no glimmering show of virtuosity. The musicians gradually wove their fugal threads into an unhurried chorale, echoing plaintively. Choi’s piano sprinted through deluges of notes in the savage third movement scherzo, and first violinist Ayano Ninomiya’s fourth movement solo was unflinching and luminous.
Ninomiya, a new addition to New England Conservatory’s faculty, proved herself a musical chameleon in every sense. Her passion for watercolors is on display in her musicianship; she expertly manipulated her tone color, fading from compressed brightness to a wispy shimmer in the space of a blink. In both the Piano Quintet and Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante, a note from her was never just a note; with her attention to detail and phrasing, one of Stravinsky’s unintuitively chromatic lines became a tender song. The weighty final movement of the Duo (ironically titled after an ecstatic dance) was laced with keening double and triple stops, shattering but decidedly unsentimental. Whatever project she takes on next, it is sure to be worth a listen.
Chameleon’s tribute to Bach continues next month with another program inspired by his music, and concludes in December with a program of all six of his Brandenburg concertos.
Chameleon Arts Ensemble
At First Church in Boston, SaturdayZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com.