Halloween allows and even encourages self-expression in so many directions, not excluding the fantastic, the morbid, the anti-social and even the horrific. The Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston, led by Artistic Director Deborah Boldin, has built a reputation for creative programming over the past 25 years, and it’s no coincidence that last weekend’s shows at Boston’s First Church featured a series of themes that fit Halloween, in which the ensemble also skilfully mixed well-known repertoire with the less familiar and new.
Although Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, for clarinet and piano are most commonly played on the cello, clarinetist Gary Gorczyca and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit provided the movement in its original form. In contrast to the composer’s fantasy pieces for solo piano, these are untitled mood pieces. In the first (“Zärtlich und mit Expression”), the performers painted a tonal image of sweet melancholy reminiscent of Schumann’s pensive and dreamy alter ego Eusebius. In the second (“Lively, light”), Gorczyca and Chang-Freiheit enjoyed the contrast between the outer sections and the middle section: the former alternated between forward thrust and reflection, while the latter, with its playful triplets, was delightfully passed back and forth between the two instruments, throw worry aside. The finale (Schnell und fiery) was in the style of Schumann’s other alter ego, Florestan: passionate and open-minded. Although the piece poses many challenges to a closed ensemble (phrases begin in the bar, with the clarinet beginning in front of the piano), the performers handled them all smoothly, particularly shining in the brilliant accelerando of the coda.
A true Halloween evocation that Gargoyle of Notre Dame by Boston composer Andrew List (b. 1956) called for the most extensive instrumentation in the program: flute and flute piccolo, clarinet and bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, and a substantial selection of percussion. The respective players were Deborah Boldin, Gary Gorczyca, Eunae Koh, Scott Woolweaver, Sarah Rommel, Vivian Chang-Freiheit and Piero Guimaraes. The composer said that during a stay in Paris he decided to create a musical portrait of the famous cathedrals [Viollet le Duc] Gargoyles, after observing that during daylight hours they perform their dual functions of repelling evil spirits and throwing down rainwater, but at night “they spring to life and run dancing, screaming, and singing throughout the church!” It begins with a low, atonal veil of sound (the pianist plucks the strings before playing the keys) from which forms, ie melodic solos, gradually take shape. As the grotesque figures “come to life”, the tempo accelerates and the dynamic increases. The prolonged climax is a stir dance of death interrupted by crashing piano chords and powerful ringing bells. With the supposed dawn, the action becomes more subdued, and the coda exhibits a final ‘extended technique’: in the final section, List has the players several times in parallel perfect intervals (fourths, fifths and octaves), somewhat reminiscent of medieval organ but with modern ones progressions. This is clearly a challenging contemporary work, often without discernible meter, and the musicians are to be congratulated on an atmospheric, compelling performance without a conductor.
The “spook factor” reached its peak in the Conte fantastique d’aprit “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 companion of Claude Debussy and incidentally conductor of the Boston Opera Company from 1910 to 1914. Poe delighted more popular in Europe (particularly France) than in his native United States, and Caplet was evidently quick to see the dramatic and musical possibilities that this particular story offered for musical setting. In scoring the work for harp and quartet, the composer’s masterpiece was to turn the harp’s angelic image upside down to represent omens, racing pulses, and finally the voice of doom: the “giant ebony clock” that the only sound that can temporarily halt the celebrations of the masked ball as the time strikes 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) produced a foreboding with unstable harmonies in all voices, sudden large dynamic shifts, trembling pianissimo harp arpeggios, etc. Maybe that Section is set in the countryside where ordinary citizens die of the Red Death, for after a meaningful pause the music clearly leads us into the sealed castle where the beautiful people (in modern parlance) celebrate 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 numerous conversations and laughter, while the striking harp part provided glittering high spirits and terpsichoric finesse. Although certainly a close spiritual relative of Ravel la valse—Narcissism so extreme it inevitably goes haywire – Caplet’s work, originally for harp and string orchestra, predated Ravel’s by a decade. After considerable fanfare, the composer reintroduces the opening’s foreboding material, complemented by eerie string harmonies, before twelve harp chords that strike midnight herald the arrival of the Red Death and the gruesome demise of all the revelers. Much of the last section consists of shaky whole-tone harp glissandi, echoing Poe’s final sentence: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held unlimited dominion over all.” Gifted as Caplet was at reinventing the printed word with music, it required performers of great skill and commitment to tell the story; Luckily he found her here.
The one-movement piano quartet by Cynthia Lee Wong (b. 1982) was also inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s works, in this case the first half of his short story “Ligeia”. The author’s goal here is not horror, but sad memory with a touch of mystery: an old man describes his beloved late wife Ligeia and remembers her death many years ago from an unspecified illness. Dating from Poe’s 20s, the story cannot be counted among his best – he devotes more than two pages to a description of Ligeia’s matchless beauty and even more to her impressive intellect and erudition – but it spoke to the composer as she approached her underwent its own heavy loss. Immersed in atonality, the work seems to depict various shades of grief, ranging from quiet misery to chest pounding cri de coeur. Violinist Eunae Koh, violist Scott Woolweaver, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and pianist Mika Sasaki sifted through these nuances sensitively, but it sounded more interesting than enjoyable. While Poe wrote, “Her features were not of that regular form which we have been mistakenly taught to adore,” one still hoped to hear a truly beautiful harmony or turn, but in vain. As a study in mental anguish, the performance was successful, but Wong’s single-minded loyalty to Poe’s text, while admirable, is not designed to attract a wide range of concert-goers. Despite this, the composer present received warm applause from Chameleon’s audience.
With Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110. It is strange that this trio should be “one of his least played pieces”. Although only two years from Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces one can perceive a more frequent sharing of thematic material between the instruments and a stronger interplay of moods. Elizabeth Fayette, violin; Rafael Popper-Keiser, cello; and Mika Sasaki, piano, handled the frequent changes of subject smoothly and respectfully, as in a three-way conversation. The first movement (Moving, But Not Too Fast) builds on a web of motifs – one particularly striking – that the players have skillfully integrated. The lovely E flat major slow movement shone with deep affection from all three performers, who subtly played the slightly more advanced harmony than the composer usually employed. After the tender first section, a more passionate, excited mood prevailed for some time before an elegantly guided transition brought us back to a more elaborate version of the first theme. The scherzo featured a sweeping theme in C minor, often doubled in two or all three instruments: the performers displayed a flawlessly cohesive ensemble and well-coordinated dynamics. The G major finale (Powerful, with humour) featured the work’s sunniest theme interspersed with other, more introspective melodies, in a rondo-like manner. (According to the program notes, critics have faulted the movement as “episodic”, but the defining characteristic of a rondo is the continuous return to the opening theme between several other themes, i.e. episodes.) The musicians increased harmonic tension and dynamics before the final appearance of the main theme, which ends with an exciting flourish.
Although a good shock remains indispensable requirement of Halloween, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble fully demonstrated that a Halloween concert can also include mood pieces, fantasies and stories told through music.