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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Brahms and Carmen

I have been reading Jan Swafford‘s marvelous biography of Brahms (available at Amazon), and was delighted to learn that Brahms absolutely loved Bizet’s Carmen, seeing it no less than twenty times.

We love finding these connections, which often reveal themselves long after the concerts have been programmed. Hear Sarasate’s Concert Fantasies on Carmen and Brahms’ f minor Piano Quintet on this coming weekend’s concerts!

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, February 1, 2010

Chameleon Featured in Berkshire Review for the Arts

Chameleon received a wonderful feature in the Berkshire Review for the Arts fall 2009 wrap up.

Check it out at

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