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Transforming experiences in chamber music
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Monday, February 1, 2010

Listening Room – Volume 3 – programming “for that transforming touch”

For years, people have been asking how I choose works and how Chameleon’s programs come together. And so, I thought I would attempt to put into words some of the circumstances and processes surrounding “for that transforming touch” on February 6 and 7.

In truth, it’s still a fairly mysterious process to me as well. I only know that a program is complete and finished when it is. How it happens varies from concert to concert. I rely heavily on instinct (our Messiaen program this past October is a good example of this) but sometimes ideas for programs are borne out of bits of trivia, history, or program notes that I come across in my listening and research. Once I decide on the theme, I often construct the entire program in my head before committing it to paper. To be sure, narrowing choices down to the four or five works per Chameleon program is the most challenging part of the process. As always, each concert melds old and new repertoire, but more than that, I try to also present highly varied, though complimentary, textures, colors and instrumentations. Works frequently wait in the wings for years until my instinct tells me I have found just the “right fit.” Each year, I wade through boxes of notes and hundreds of recordings searching for countless hours for the next Chameleon-esque concept. I’m mostly interested in the “extra musical” or human aspects rather than any kind of formal analysis (details about composers’ lives, circumstances surrounding the composition, etc.). In doing so, patterns and themes emerge (ie. folk music, love, loss, duos, trios, musical makeovers, etc.) and so do Chameleon concerts.

This weekend’s program has been nearly a decade in the making as I searched for just the right way to frame Brahms’ amazing Piano Quintet in f minor, Op. 34. The Quintet has been a favorite work of mine for as long as I can remember. It has taken up permanent residence on my I Pod and goes with me everywhere. I listen to at least portions of it every week and no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it still makes me spin, makes me leap, makes me cry… Consequently, it was personally very difficult for me to find a program that I felt was special enough. I’m obviously too close to the piece to be objective, but luck and curiosity helped.

Uncovering Boulez’s Derive I was what made all the difference. At the time, my husband was reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise and we would regularly talk about the book. Ross’ take on Boulez was unflattering to say the least, and since at that point I wasn’t terribly familiar with his music, I promptly added him to my listening list. His chamber music catalogue is quite small and so I thought that after a quick listen, I would confirm that it was terrible, and my curiosity would be sated. Instead, I fell in love with his startling textures and whirls of color, from Derive I in particular. I was so taken that I simply dropped everything else and began to try and figure out a way to include it in a Chameleon program.

In the end Boulez’s title became the unifying theme – music that has been derived from other materials, recomposed or re-imagined. He described it as “one tree spawns many other trees” which was for me a beautiful image of the connectedness of old and new music – a core philosophy that is present in every Chameleon program.

I started collecting lists of “recomposed” pieces with Brahms’ Quintet – which existed first as a string quintet and then as a sonata for 2 pianos – at the top. As it turns out, there are an enormous number of works that fall under this very general category. The next step of narrowing down the choices is something I really cannot explain. Suffice it to say that I make certain that I truly love every work on every Chameleon program, and that I know the combination will give a fully satisfying evening of music.

In this case, I felt that Sarasate’s famous Carmen Fantasy was a natural complement following a long line of instrumental variations and arrangements of operas. In Libby Larsen’s heartbreaking setting of the last words of the wives of Henry VIII, she deftly weaves lute songs by John Dowland, Praetorius, and Thomas Campion throughout. Finally, Irving Fine’s Partita for wind quintet stretches this theme in a direction that unusually analytical for a Chameleon concert. He uses a mode of composition called thematic metamorphosis in which the musical material evolves out of two small melodic fragments and so the entire piece is recomposed at its very core. Which brings us full circle to Brahms, whose masterful spinning of large-scale works from the tiniest motives inspired the twelve-tone method of none other than Arnold Schoenberg, which brings us to the next program in March….

Monday, January 11, 2010

Listening Room – Volume 2

Despite “best laid plans” it’s taken me nearly 2 months to return to this blog after my first post. Ah, my apologies! Let’s see if we can do better in the New Year.

I’ve just begun my annual systematic cycle through the chamber music recordings on the Naxos online music library. The library contains a tremendous wealth of material and is a great place to discover new works and revisit old favorites – a very “Chameleon” way of listening!

Today’s docket included works by the esteemed American composer Samuel Adler (Albany Records: TROY582). I must admit that was not at all familiar with his music. At first listen, his textures are intriguing and I look forward to devoting some considered time to his large catalogue in the future. The first piece I chose today was “Rocking Horse Winner,” on texts of D.H. Lawrence for soprano, oboe, cello, and piano. Although I enjoyed sections of this brief work, I felt it lacked a cohesiveness from beginning to end and it lost my interest halfway through. The same cannot be said for his Viola Sonata written in 1984. The Sonata is a superb work, flowing, muscular and haunting, and stood up to two consecutive listenings.

Anton Arensky’s Piano Quintet, Op. 51 provided a refreshing change of pace (Marco Polo: 8.223811). I dearly love this piece and have been searching for several years for just the right spot on a Chameleon program, with no success. It’s performed less often than his Piano Trio No. 1 in d minor, but for me, it’s a much more affecting work, and positively joyous. Today, it sounded like a little breath of spring and was a much needed relief to January’s cold winds.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Listening Room – Volume 1

We are excited to be launching Chameleon’s new blog series entitled the “Listening Room”.

Many people ask me where my programming ideas come from, and in almost every case they stem from what I’m listening to. The sounds themselves serve as the source of inspiration and every piece on every Chameleon concert is something on my iPod – something that I want to hear – not for scholarship, but for love of music.

Every year, I listen to hundreds and hundreds of works. Some I already know and love, some are brand new, and some I am re-discovering. My guiding principles are simple: keep an open ear, an open mind, and an open heart and always be curious.

Since this is a first post, it seems a good place for disclaimers: I don’t just listen to classical chamber music. Shocking but true! Sometimes I need a little break and for me that might mean anything from Edith Piaf to the Beatles to Richard Thompson. I’ve gotten to the age where I’m pretty shy of top 40, but I’ve recently rediscovered my love for ABBA and am enjoying it immensely.

Last week I was positively obsessed with Libby Larsen’s “Corker” for clarinet and percussion, written in 1991. Ms. Larsen describes it as drawn from popular music of the 40s. For me, it feels like film noir – black and white, with characters lurking around smoky, shadowy corners. My recording is by Boston’s own Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. There’s another on Amazon by Innova Recordings. It’s a short work, only 7 minutes long, and so multiple listenings have been on the menu.

Also on my docket were two piano quartets: Beethoven’s Piano Quartet No.3 in C Major, WoO 36 and Dvorak’s 2nd piano quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 87. Beethoven’s was written when he was only 15, and although it’s not complex or profound music I adore its light and breezy textures, especially the third movement Rondo. The recording I have is particularly amazing: “Martha Argerich and Friends Live from the Lugano Festival 2005: Chamber Music.”

This week I imagine that my ears will be filled with our upcoming concert program, but check back in mid-November for my next installment.

I hope you enjoy these listening adventures and join in the discussion!

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