Chordal majesty from Chameleon

By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2011

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“From wild spring air’’ was the title of the fifth and final concert of Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s 13th season, but on Saturday night, the playing at a packed Goethe-Institut matched the weather outside: warm and pungent, with a more than a hint of rainy sorrow. The program from this all-star lineup of chamber musicians was typically imaginative and eclectic, a gathering of B’s not Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but Samuel Barber, Derek Bermel, Beethoven, and Ernest Bloch.

Program title notwithstanding, the evening began with Barber’s “Summer Music’’ (1956). Perhaps because it was a commission from the Detroit Chamber Music Society, this wind quintet is summer in the city, with squealing car horns, scrambling pedestrians, a recollection of summer camp. A jazzy nightclub and a church peered out from the cacophony; there was a sudden run and then it all just stopped, the players glowing in the heat of their performance.

Bermel’s “Tied Shifts’’ (2004) is a crazy race through the Balkans, with jagged clarinet and fiddle playing and meters that shift at will. The first movement is marked “Driving, relentless,’’ and it was, from the opening violin ostinato to the marimba’s demented dance of death. The “Rocking gently’’ second movement starts out in Charles Ives hymn mode, the cello singing low and comforting against a flute that goes off on its own, but after that it just rocks. The playing rose to a chorus of chordal majesty before subsiding into mutterings; the end found everyone stuck in a moment, as in the beginning.

The performance of Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor (1800) was a thing of beauty throughout, with violinist Joanna Kurkowicz (the concertmistress of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra) and Russian-American guest pianist Sergey Schepkin conversing like a married couple, intense and passionate in the opening Presto, then playful but with an edge in the Andante scherzoso. In the Molto allegro rondo finale, they tried to outdo each other, alternating fireworks with teasing pauses. The finish itself was a tease, as if the couple had talked themselves out and were going to bed.

Chameleon concluded with Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1, which was written in 1923 but seems to anticipate the Holocaust, with its war-machine marches and songs of lamentation and Dies Irae allusions. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end, piano chords that shine like stars to wish on. The performers Kurkowicz and Schepkin joined by violinist Katherine Winterstein, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer all played like stars.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at


At: Goethe-Institut, Saturday and Sunday