Concert Review: Chameleon Arts Ensemble Pay Glorious Respect to Father and Sons —

It doesn’t get much better for father and sons than when these virtuosos give their superb all for the Bach clan at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on a beautiful June afternoon.


Chameleon Arts Ensemble at Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

By Susan Miron

The Boston-based Chameleon Arts Ensemble celebrated Fathers’ Day on Sunday, performing music of Johann Sebastian Bach and three of his sons at Rockport Chamber Music in the breathtaking Shalin Liu Performance Center. I have a variety of alleged conflict of interests, so I suppose another critic might have been less biased. But frankly, given the Globe‘s recent dismissal of its freelance music reviewers, there are not many critics left to cover the scene. The program interested me (I taught a course in fathers and sons in Modern Jewish literature. I remain fascinated by fathers and sons in general) so, although I have covered the Chameleons many times, and have become friendly with several people who performed on Sunday, I feel that I can be honest. But the reader has been informed.

That said, what an absolutely delightful concert! In starring roles were two of J.S. Bach’s much-loved Brandenburg Concertos (Nos. 5 and 4), which ended (respectively) both halves of the concert, each preceded by works composed by his sons. I was not familiar with these pieces, but one of them proved to among the concert’s highlights, and the other two were extremely enjoyable. Deborah Boldin, the Chameleon’s Artistic Director (she and the group won an Artsfuse Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts last February) and flutist, chose pleasurable pieces that worked wonderfully together.

The weather was perfect: the backdrop of the blue-grey ocean against a powder-blue and white sky made this hall — and concert — seem as close to musical paradise as one can land on a June afternoon.

Sinfonia in D minor, F. 65, ‘Adagio and Fugue’ for Two Flutes, Strings, and Continuo by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784) opened the program. It featured two stellar flutists, Boldin and Sooyun Kim. The string players throughout the afternoon included three excellent violinists (Robyn Bollinger, Eunae Koh, and Sean Lee), violist Scott Woolweaver, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, double bassist Erik Higgins, and harpsichordist Sergey Schepkin. Sometimes nicknamed “the Halle Bach,” where he taught and served as director of the city chorus, W.F. Bach was the second child, and eldest son, of J.S. Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach, who had seven children with him before her early death. This selection set the pattern for the rest of the afternoon’s line-up — a captivating performance by players who truly seemed happy to be performing with each other.

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was his father’s youngest — and possibly favorite — son, born 25 years after his older half-brother Wilhelm Friedemann to Anna Magdalena, the mother of 13 of Bach’s second brood of children. Sometimes called “the London Bach,” his compositions anticipated the musical world of admirers Haydn and Mozart. His lighthearted, drawing-room divertissement “Quintet in F Major for Oboe, Violin, Viola, Cello and Keyboard” Op. 22 provided an opportunity for the lovely oboe-playing of Nancy Dimock.

J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050 is among the composer’s most popular pieces, if for no other reason than its manically exuberant harpsichord cadenza, which was given an electrifying rendition by Sergey Schepkin, best known for his brilliant Bach performances and highly esteemed recordings (most recently The Six French Suites and a second recording of The Six Partitas). The two other excellent soloists were Robyn Bollinger and Deborah Boldin.

One of the most entertaining pieces of chamber music that I had never heard (or heard of) before was next on the program. It featured violinists Robyn Bollinger and Sean Lee (2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant Recipient). Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, a.k.a. C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), was the fifth child of first wife Maria Barbara and J.S., the younger brother by four years of W.F. and the older half-brother (by twenty-one years) of Johann Christian. Perhaps the best-known of all of J.S.’s 21 children, C.P.E. was both a brilliant harpsichordist, prolific composer (over a thousand compositions), and the writer of a treatise on keyboard technique that is still highly respected today.

I had no idea that this prodigy also had a very fine sense of humor, until I heard this “Trio Sonata in C Minor for 2 Violins and Continuo,” H. 579, WQ. 161, subtitled “Sauguineus and Melancholics.” Based on a programmatic idea (uncommon in his time), this charmer featured the superb violinists Sean Lee (as the joyful and exuberant Sauguineus) and Robyn Bollinger (as the depressed Melancholicus), with Rafael Popper-Keizer and Sergey Schepkin deftly negotiating their way between playful mood swings. What terrific fun! Some thinkers and artists in the 18th century believed that there are four basic ‘humors” (personality types): the sanguine (sociable and optimistic), the melancholic (quiet and introverted), the phlegmatic (calm and patient), and the choleric (extroverted and impatient). The audience chuckled its way through this enormously entertaining piece.

Nine Chameleons (all but the oboe) ended the afternoon concert with an elegantly joyous performance of J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major,” BWV 1049. The brilliance of the harpsichord writing is the exhilarating key here, as it is in the Fifth Brandenburg, (J.S. Bach was a famed keyboard virtuoso. There was very little this composer couldn’t do). Throughout the concert Schepkin and Popper-Keizer provided expertly sensitive continuo playing. The two flutists, Boldin and Kim, along with violinist Lee, delivered sparkling turns. It doesn’t get much better for father and sons then when these virtuosos give their superb all for the Bach clan at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on a beautiful June afternoon.

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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