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"Upon One Note," with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble

Sunday, March 14, 2021
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, it's an evening of chamber music through the centuries, from the classic lilt of Haydn to the modernist palettes of Oliver Knussen and Francis Poulenc.

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Recorded on April 6 and 7, 2019 at First Church in Boston.

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble

POULENC Sextet in C
KNUSSEN ...upon one note - Fantasia after Purcell
HAYDN Piano Trio No. 43 in C
SCHUBERT String Quintet in C

Deborah Boldin, Artistic Director of the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, talks with WCRB's Brian McCreath about the threads that connect the works on the program and the distinctive character of each piece:


Learn more about the Chameleon Arts Ensemble and see upcoming events.

Interview Transcript:

Brian McCreath (BMcC) I'm Brian McCreath at CRB with Deborah Boldin, she's the artistic director and the founder of Chameleon Arts Ensemble. And it's your 22nd season now, Deb, so thanks for spending a little time with me here in the studio today.

Deborah Boldin (DB)  Thank you for having me, Brian. It's always such a joy to be back here at WCRB.

BMcC  So, your programs are invariably just constructed in these really creative ways. It's one of the things I always love about Chameleon, bringing together threads of music that are unexpected that you don't find or expect. If you know one piece, you're going to find something else on the concert that you've put together that you would never have expected to be there. You always arrange it around a particular theme, and this is "Upon One Note." Now, the Oliver Knussen piece "...upon one note" is part of the program. So I'm assuming that that's where it started. Tell me more about the theme, "upon one note."

DB Well, I encountered Oliver Knussen's piece in some research that I was doing about for our 20th anniversary a couple of years ago. And in that process, I was looking at music that was inspired, current music that was inspired by music of the past, and then threading that theme together. And in that process, I found three amazing works, one by Colin Matthews, which we performed on our 20th anniversary season, which actually we've heard here at WCRB, and then also one by George Benjamin and this one by Oliver Knussen. And it is inspired by the Purcell fantasy in which Middle C sounds throughout. And I thought, that is fantastic. And the title of the piece, "...upon one note," just triggered this fantasy for me about creating an entire concert around the note C, middle C, so all of the pieces on this concert are in or marginally around middle C. And using, we stole his title of his work for the concert itself and I just thought that it was such a whimsical idea. And that fits with the Chameleon programming philosophy of looking for things perhaps that are a little bit off the beaten track, a little bit wink-wink, and trying to thread them through a concert of actually quite meaningful music so that it's not meant to be silly. But we also don't want to take ourselves too seriously all the time.

BMcC  Right. Right. And I'm sure Oliver would not mind you're stealing the title anyway.

DB  I hope not! [Laughs]

BMcC  But let's stick with his work for just a minute. Oliver Knussen is, he's been around for a long time, or was. I mean, we should say he sadly passed away a number of years ago,.

DB  It was about a year and a half ago, I think.

BMcC  Yeah. Yeah. And so, yet he's still someone that a lot of listeners would not have heard before. I think his music is very special. But I want to hear from you for people who have not encountered Oliver Knussen's music before, what descriptors can you even apply to it? How do you prepare someone to hear what Ollie wrote?

DB  Sure. Well, I would say generally his music for me has this really amazing combination of whimsy and seriousness. It's definitely Contemporary music with a capital C. But he infuses this incredible, it's almost boundless, imagination to it. Folks who have been with Chameleon for a long time might recall we did his incredible song cycle called "Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh," and he threaded little bits of text from the various Pooh works, but with serious music that one could trace backwards through Britten to Schoenberg and along that ilk, I guess. And he's also well known for a long collaboration with Maurice Sendak. He did a pair of operas, one on "Where the Wild Things Are," and the other was titled, I think it's "Higgledy-Piggledy Pop." But despite these kind of childlike fantasy ideas, the music itself feels really rooted in the traditions and really also understandable, I think. And I actually find his music to be a bit like Poulenc as well, which we're also going to hear on this program, which has the perfect blend of whimsy and fantasy with ravishing melodies and a seriousness that elevates the idea of wit to concert music.

BMcC  And this piece in particular is just, it's almost like a breeze. It arrives and then it's gone. It's not a long piece at all.

DB No, it's short. I think it's at most four minutes, three or four minutes, something like that. And he actually describes it. I brought a little quote that he wrote about the piece.

He says, "It begins like a floating dreamlike place that recalls but does not sound at all like Purcell. The progress of the piece is like a gradual waking up from this state, with the original coming more and more into focus until it stands unadorned at the end." So we don't actually hear Purcell at the beginning. We hear Oliver Knussen at the beginning. And then suddenly you hear bits of Purcell coming into play, middle C sounds throughout. And then we are in the past. And I think that's one of the things which makes it so special.

BMcC  Absolutely. You mentioned Poulenc in relation to Knussen. I also thought of Poulenc when you were describing the program in general when you said "wink-wink," because Poulenc is such a joy with the wit that he brings to his work. And yet there's also with especially, you know, the music that he wrote in the second half of his career and life, there's that solemnity, that sort of pause and meditativeness that he brings to his works. And this particular sextet kind of works that way, doesn't it?

DB  I think it's a perfect balance between whimsy and ravishing, ravishing melodies and that are worthy of his idols, Schubert and Mozart, and which also ties to Schubert on this program as well. And he also has an uncanny ability to write for winds. He knows how to get at the most wonderful quality of each of the wind instruments, the soulfulness, the brightness, the cheerfulness. And I think that, you know, he among the "Les Six" composers in Paris at the time, mostly was most connected to their guru, who was Eric Satie, who believed that wit and cheer had a place in serious concert music.

BMcC  Say a little bit more about Poulenc's ability to write for winds, because, first of all, he was he was basically self-taught, which kind of makes him a miracle to begin with.

DB  Yes.

BMcC  But when you're a wind player, your instrument, flute, for those who haven't heard you or seen you in person, when you're a flute player and you're playing Poulenc, what do you mean by this, the special ability to write for winds? What does it mean to you as a player?

DB  Well, I think he chooses notes that resonate within the instrument and the body really well. That's quite hard to be able to discern, just looking on the page. But I find when someone has a real affinity for writing for the flute, I can feel the instrument vibrate in my hands. And when that happens, I feel personally more connected to the music, that I'm the vehicle that makes it happen rather than trying to fight against the technical demands.

That's not to say that it's never challenging to play his music. Actually, it's quite challenging to play his music. He writes very fast tempos, very high, very low. You know, he doesn't coddle the wind players, but I think that he knew about resonance. And it's curious, most composers write a lot for string players and to find really great, considerable classic kind of works that are focused on winds is rare. In fact, I think, so Poulenc has no string quartets, no piano trios, and I think he only has three works for string and piano. I think it's two violin works and the cello sonata. And the rest are these incredible groupings of works for winds in trios, and this particular sextet, and a whole bunch of sonatas. There's a sonata for clarinet and bassoon, one for flute and piano, oboe and piano, clarinet and piano, for two clarinets. I mean, it goes on and on and each one has its, lives in its own sound world that feels very connected to his language. And each one has a resonance of that particular wind instrument. For me.

BMcC  That's beautifully said. I love that. I mean, no, but it is a hard thing to communicate. I mean, I understand how, you know, the experience of someone listening doesn't necessarily, you know, there's not a direct line into your mind and comfort level or artistic, you know, spark, on the inside even as we're hearing it on the outside. So I love the way that you expressed all this about what it means that he wrote so well for winds. It's a rare thing for a composer to have that kind of affinity. But, and there are those composers who write things that turned out to be beautiful music, turns out to be great music, but doesn't necessarily sit well on instruments even when it is great.

DB  Right. Right. And, it's curious, I don't believe he played any of the wind instruments. And as you mentioned, he didn't have that much in the way of, you know, largely self-taught, although he did spend, I think, five or so years studying counterpoint with Charles Koechlin. And that is evidenced in the way that his music feels very puzzled together, and of the kind of classical, has the classical underpinnings to it.

BMcC  So classical underpinnings gets us to Haydn and this piano trio.

DB  Yes.

BMcC  And it just sparkles. I want to pause for just a moment before we even talk about that piece and ask you about Mika Sasaki, and just what she brings to this, because her playing is just so, so effervescent, you know, through the whole first half of this concert.

DB  Yes. Well, Mika has just the most beautiful and brilliant touch, and she's able to make every note sound like a little pang of crystal, I think. And she brings also an incredible energy and attentiveness to detail. So, you know, being in the sextet with her, she was always right there with us. And you could hear that her articulation is so incredibly clear, which is extremely important for Haydn, which is a very, very virtuosic piano part. In fact, one of his most virtuosic piano parts for his late piano trios.

BMcC  Well, so this is the thing about the piano trio. There's a lot of them. And so choosing this one, you knew you would have Mika. So you were, it was bold, but safe, I think, to say that this is going to work because the piano part is really virtuosic. It's really basically a piano sonata with the violin and cello kind of hanging on and doing their part. But it's really about the piano.

DB  Well, Haydn was still writing in this mindset of accompanied sonata, so in which the piano was the main player and the violin and cello were slightly secondary. And I hate to characterize any instrument in chamber music as secondary. I've spent the last twenty two years making sure that every part feels important, and I think that's true. I mean, chamber music... I mean, no disrespect meant meant to symphonic literature, but more so I think, than symphonic literature, you know, the "one on a part," every bit is important, whether you're playing accompanimental figure or you're bringing this gorgeous melody to life. So I use "secondary" very hesitantly.

BMcC  Noted. Yeah. That's great.

DB  But what Haydn did for the piano trio was to push the boundaries of this accompanied sonata style. So even in the title was "for piano, with violin and cello." "Trio for piano with violin and cello." He pushed it as far as one could so that Mozart could then take the next step and further evolve the form for three equal players. And I think these late piano trios of Haydn really, really did just that. They were sort of the next, just the step before all three players were equal. And this is one of the best examples, I think, of his harmonic inventions and his sort of... He was free to explore his imagination and to write something that was extremely virtuosic for the piano. And this was because the woman who premiered it was one of Clementi's finest piano students and she had great ability, and so Haydn was unfettered. He could do whatever he wanted.

BMcC  And it is a brilliant piece, so I'm glad it's part of the program. You know, it brings to mind, as I said, there's this catalog now-- in this particular case, yes, you were working with a theme, so you zeroed in on what would work. But I always love talking to you about the repertoire choices because your appetite is so wide with composers, styles, eras, instrumentation, everything. But then you get to a category like piano trios by Haydn. And there's so many of them.

DB  Right.

BMcC  That I wonder, how deeply do you know that catalog, just out of curiosity?

DB  Well, in this particular case, I did a quick scan, "C Major, late trios." Well, here we've got one. I should be saying that there was a long process of studying the score and getting to know each and every part. But, you know, I often program rather instinctually, actually. I listen to everything. In this case, because there are so many Haydn piano trios, the one everybody knows is the "gypsy" trio, which actually we're playing in a couple of weeks. But I wanted to do something in the later Haydn, because I wanted to be more harmonically inventive, which I thought would connect better with Schubert and Poulenc and then ultimately Oliver Knussen as well. But I listen, and if it brings me joy, then it goes on the A-list. And it's kind of as simple as that. And then I take this, what turns out to be an extremely large A-list to try to find other commonalities. And then puzzle together programs, and I often put them together, even in my head, as I'm walking around town, people see me walking down Mass. Ave., and I look like I'm about to bump into a sign, maybe steer me in the other-- but I'm often thinking about how music goes together.

BMcC  Yeah.

DB  And when I'm away from a computer, when I'm just able to walk around and dream. And so this particular program, this "Upon One Note" program came about that way.

BMcC  And at what point do you factor in your own participation as a flutist? Because this one I mean, you're just in the Poulenc, but there are other times when you're much more involved. So how do you calibrate that? Like, what is the best balance for Deb Boldin, who's running the organization and who's also, by the way, you know, really involved in the work itself on stage?

DB  Well, I choose the program first. That, for me, what people are going to experience, the listening experience that people are going to have is of primary importance. The other thing I do think about is that I don't want Chameleon to become a series where it's Deborah Boldin and friends. When I step into any ensemble, I want to be just an equal member. I don't want to be the artistic director in charge. I've chosen the music the people are going to play. I've chosen the order of the program. I've chosen the artists that are going to come together for each work. But then I want the music to evolve under their, with their imagination. And then I want to be an equal partner in that, because there's nothing more thrilling than being in a room with three or four or five or six people and bringing a piece of music to life. And sometimes you argue about what the tempo should be or who has the more important line, or "I need to breathe here," that's always a wind player concern. "You need to wait for me. I have to breathe." But being involved in that process is really thrilling. And in that way I take off my artistic director hat.

BMcC  Yep, yep. The String Quintet by Schubert. What an amazing piece. It's like so many of his later pieces, especially, it has this sort of monumental quality to it, but every moment of it is intimate along the way.

DB  Yes.

BMcC  You know, I guess I'm describing it myself, but I'm curious about your experience of this piece, especially, you know, as a flutist. And I don't want to focus too much on that, because you have this broad taste as an artistic director. But do you remember, like, your first sort of encounter with this piece?

DB  I don't. I feel like it's been with me for all time. And I actually envy people who are going to hear it for the first time because you're going to be surprised and delighted and enlivened and moved. On my way over here today to talk to you. I was thinking about what what Schubert means to me or what makes Schubert special. And it's very, it's a little hard to articulate, I have to admit, but I find Schubert to be, the word you used, "intimate," I think is a great, is a great one. We throw around words like "masterpiece" and "monumental" a lot, but the String Quintet most certainly deserves those labels. But beyond its scope, it's overwhelming the amount of sound and textures that he's able to get from just five instruments. It lasts 45 to 50 minutes depending on tempos. It never feels a second too long, and it brings immeasurable joy and a connection with the human spirit.

And I think that that is true of all Schubert. Whether you're listening to one of the greatest pieces ever written, which I think we can all agree that Schubert's Cello Quintet is among, or if you're listening to a little piano Rondo, there's just something about it. I hear just a few notes of Schubert and immediately my heart is open and he does that for me more than other composers. There's so much great music out there. Of course, we can talk about, you know, Brahms and his gorgeous melodies and Mozart's verve and life, but it only takes two or three notes of Schubert for my for my heart to melt and to bring tears. And I think that that's an incredible achievement. And there are no words to describe exactly why it is. But I know that I'm not alone in that experience. So and that's why, you know, if you ask people, what's your favorite desert island, you know, there's that thing where you say, "I like to bring 10-- you have 10 works, you're going to be on a desert island. What would, what would that be?" I think Schubert Cello Quintet would be on many, many folks' lists.

BMcC  No doubt. No doubt. Your next concert is called "Who's Fragments We Inherit," and unpack that title for me a little bit. And then, how is this program put together that you're going to do on February 29th and March 1st?

DB  Well, the title and the theme of the program are really linked in this particular case. Again, this is a Mozart homage and a Chameleon style Mozart homage. And so we are inheriting his bits of fragments. And in fact, one of the pieces on the program, which is titled "Moz-art," M-O-Z, dash, A-R-T by Alfred Schnittke, uses fragments of Mozart to create this kind of almost pantomime, or a melange, maybe, for two violins. So we're also doing Mozart's, well, another masterpiece, I think we can use "masterpiece" again in this case, his Clarinet Quintet, which also I think would be on folks' desert island.

BMcC  Oh, yeah.

DB  It would be on mine, for sure.

BMcC  No question.

DB  And then a number of other works. We're doing the Haydn "Gypsy" Trio, which I think you can't consider Mozart without Haydn and Haydn without Mozart. They were so together instrumental in defining the Classical era with a capital C. And we're also doing a wind quintet by Steven Stucky that was titled Serenade. And he takes that serenade form, the entertainment form, the outdoor entertainment form that Mozart brought so beautifully to life, you know, into the 21st century. And also a set of variations for cello and piano by Mendelssohn.

BMcC  Fantastic. Well, we're really looking forward to it, Deborah. Thank you so much for coming today and talking with me. It's a fabulous program. It's great to have you here.

DB  Thank you for having me.