Concert Review: Chameleon Arts Ensemble Pianists Impress ‘Up Close’

Had they not had interesting and flourishing careers already in place, Elizabeth Schumann and Gloria Chien could give many full-time piano duos a run for their money.


Pianists Gloria Chien (l) and Elizabeth Schumann. Photo: courtesy of Chameleon Arts Ensemble.

By Susan Miron

Over my past five years as a reviewer, I’ve made it a mission to attend as many Chameleon Arts Ensemble concerts as I could. Their Artistic Director and flutist, Deborah Boldin, has a gift — and won awards — for creating distinctive programming in which the pieces chosen, including many contemporary ones, speak to and illuminate each other. The Chameleons are all outstanding players, and Gabriel Langfur’s program notes are unusually thought provoking. To top things off, there are homemade cookies after the concerts, where you can munch and mingle with the musicians.

This year the Chameleons introduced a pair of cabaret-inspired ‘Up Close’ concerts at the Goethe Institut Boston (one of their usual venues). During the first concert, twenty tables for four enjoyed a performance that featured cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit; last Sunday, the focus was on four-hand piano music. I had experienced the brilliance of the two pianists, Elizabeth Schumann and Gloria Chien, two years ago when they gave a memorable performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (four-hand version). I had fervently hoped they would reach those heights again, and they did.

The first set of pieces were Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) exotic Six épigraphes antiques, a collection that recalls his Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun in its evocation of ancient times. The French poet Pierre Louÿs, a friend of Debussy, published  Chansons de Bilitis, in which he passed off his work as translations of poems by an ancient Greek poetess and contemporary of Sappho (circa 600 BC). It quickly came out that he had made the whole thing up (including a false biography), but composers didn’t care — Honegger and several others worked the lyrics into operas. Debussy set three of the poems for soprano and piano in 1897-98, and in 1900 started working on a set of small pieces (scored for two flutes, two harps and celeste) to accompany readings of a selection of the poems. Fourteen years later, depressed about the beginning of World War I and battling colon cancer, Debussy re-used some of the “Bilitis” incidental music as part of Six épigraphes antiques for piano four-hands. The latter is hypnotic, slow, and dreamy, making sinuous use of modal melodies and whole tone scales. Schumann and Chien gave a seductively beautiful performance that perfectly caught the spirit of this music.

Composer Steven Stuckey (born 1949) wrote his Allegretto quasi Andantino (Schubert Dream) for the piano duo of Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki, who were planning an Homage to Schubert concert in 2011. He writes:

My first instinct was to write for two pianos; as a confirmed orchestral composer, I yearned for the ‘orchestration’ potential of two keyboards and two sets of piano pedals. Yet the more I thought about Manny and Yoko and Schubert together, and about Schubert’s own four-hand piano catalog, the more I realized that the intimacy of four-hand playing would better fit the bill.

Allegretto quasi Andantino is the tempo marking of Schubert’s Grand Rondo in A Major from 1828. My Schubert dream is sparked of a few, half-remembered bits of that wonderful work… Like John Harbison in his celebrated November 19, 1828, I gravitate towards the last year of Schubert’s life, which found him increasingly preoccupied with darker subjects. Even the sunny Grand Rondo plays out, I think, against a backdrop of melancholy, and that same melancholy is the dominant mood of my Allegretto quasi Andantino.

Stuckey’s piece, steeped in sadness, was played with grace and beauty. It was a brilliant companion piece to the Schubert that had inspired and followed it.

Schubert composed prolifically for piano four-hands, almost as much as he wrote for solo piano. The Rondo in A Major (which came to be known as “The Grand Rondo”) is his last four-hand piano work — it was completed five months before he died at the age of 31. It shares with other piano works he wrote in his last year a surfeit of melodic genius and inventiveness. He took this genre most seriously, even though it was mainly of interest then to amateur musicians. I love Schubert’s piano four-hand piano music, but hadn’t known this piece; I am grateful for such a beautiful introduction.

Debussy heard much of Le Sacre du printemps played by Stravinsky himself months before its premiere, and responded in writing, “I still preserve the memory of the performance of your Sacre du printemps… It haunts me like a beautiful nightmare and I try in vain to retrieve the terrifying impression it made. For which reason I look forward to its production like a greedy child who has been promised sweets.” Interestingly, Debussy and Ravel were both at the dress rehearsal for Sacre, before the historical tumult that greeted its premiere.

The [] serve up great music and cookies as well

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble serve up great music and cookies as well. Photo: courtesy of CAE.

Stravinsky recalled that The Rite (subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia”) had its genesis in a dream he had in the spring of 1910 as he was finishing The Firebird. “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” As Langfur writes in his program notes:

He began composing the music the following fall, and despite claiming later that there was only one folk song in the ballet, extensive research into Russian folk music was part of his process, and he even selected materials from regions where paganism had persisted the longest.

Schumann and Chen, who alternated playing sitting primo and secondo, perform extraordinarily well together. At Chameleon concerts they usually play with strings or winds, hardly ever as a team. Had they not had interesting and flourishing careers already in place, they could give many full-time piano duos a run for their money. In the Stravinsky version of the notoriously difficult Rite of Spring the two were simply thrilling. Their meticulously controlled dynamics and mastery of wildly jagged rhythms were heart-stopping: the savagery of the music emerged as frighteningly and bone-chillingly as it does in its orchestral version.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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