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Classical Music Gridlock

Both Mallarm Chamber Players and Ciompi Quartet performed new work last weekend



On Sunday, Nov. 12, the Mallarmé Chamber Players did what they do best, reflecting their original mission statement: They presented concerts of new works and rarely heard older works. Their large pool of excellent musicians makes it possible to select the absolute best forces to suit the style of the works programmed.

The program was entitled "American Impressions--Musical Impressions of Poetry, Paintings and Traditional Music in the Vision of Stéphane Mallarmé" and included selections from Dan Locklair, Ulysses Kay, Charles Martin Loeffler and Joel Hoffman. The moving force behind this concert, oboist Bo Newsome, joined with flutist Pam Nelson, violist Scott Rawls, cellist Virginia Hudson and pianist Andrew Willis in performing works to achieve this ambitious goal. The central composition in the program was the recently premiered Reynolda Reflections, a five-movement work for flute, cello and piano by Winston-Salem composer Dan Locklair. According to the composer in his pre-concert lecture, replete with slides, the music conveys his impressions of five paintings on display in Reynolda House. Mallarmé, the French Symbolist poet of the late 19th century, who believed in the unity of all arts, would have been pleased.

The most successful movement was the fourth, "Dances before the Barn," with its alternating lyrical and rhythmic sections. It was inspired by Charles Sheeler's "Conversation Piece" a coolly geometric picture of a farm. Less successful was "Arias to a Flower," based on Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pool in the Woods, Lake George." Like many of her paintings, this one is exceptionally erotic and sensuous. Locklair succeeded in capturing the serenity of the picture but somehow missed its sensuality and eroticism. A healthy touch of irony marked the last, "Songs to the Wind," inspired by Elliott Daingerfield's "Spirit of the Storm," a 1912 commission by the Santa Fe railroad to drum up business for Grand Canyon tours. The kitschy picture elicited from Locklair a little too obviously kitschy music, including some pompous Wagnerian moments. The players got off to a somewhat ragged start in the first movement, especially the cello, but then settled down and gave this new work a lovely performance. It would be good to hear it a second time, perhaps for the Sights and Sounds on Sunday series at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which aims to demonstrate the relationship between visual arts and music.

Ulysses Kay, one of the first black composers to earn broad recognition, started as a member of a naval band during World War II, then became a musical consultant to the British recording company BMI and professor at the City University of New York. He was a charming, modest man whose music always reflected his temperament, and never more so than in his 1943 Suite for Flute and Oboe. This work gave Nelson and Newsome the opportunity to show off their instruments to best advantage.

A German-Frenchman turned American, Charles Martin Loeffler was an accomplished musician, but most of his works have a lot of the 19th-century salon flavor. His Deux Rapsodies of 1901 for oboe, viola and piano--originally set for baritone to eerie poems, although the composer wisely dropped the voice--suffer from the overripe atmosphere of the period. In the first one, "The Pond," the calm was saccharine-sweet and the storm overblown. In the second, "The Bagpipe," there was lots of Sturm and very little Drang. Even the excellent performance by Newsome, Rawls and Willis couldn't make these musical vignettes interesting.

The program ended with Joel Hoffman's 1996 work for flute, oboe, cello and piano, The Music Within the Word, Part I. This is a modern elaboration on four Jewish traditional melodies, with a touch of both klezmer and rag. The work is full of energy, as was the delightful performance.

In another of the weekend's many classical concerts (a feast-or-famine classical music gridlock, becoming ever more common around here), the Ciompi Quartet was assisted by pianist James Tocco. Two of the works on the program, however, had to be changed at the last minute because first violinist Eric Pritchard had injured his left ring-finger. However the injury did not prevent him from playing in the premiere of String Quartet No. 1, subtitled Hopeful Monster, by former Duke composition student Joanne Metcalf, now pursuing a successful composition career here and in Europe. Second violinist Hsiao-mei Ku played first chair in Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 and Brahms's lush Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 25.

Metcalf's quartet was inspired by a computer game in which abstract shapes are generated at random from a single basic form, each one more complex than its predecessor. The work is constructed totally from a minor third, in every combination, transformation and permutation possible. There was, however, little variation in dynamics, rhythm or texture, and a continuous wash of sound, a kind of "legato minimalism." Its greatest drawback was its insistence on that original minor third as a ground, or "tonic" of the piece, thereby creating a monotonous tonal architecture. The mood of the piece recalled Barber's Adagio for Strings but without that masterpiece's steady buildup of tension.

The opening work, Mozart's Piano Quartet in G minor, was disappointing. Ku had intonation problems in her high register and the whole performance was simply too loud, hardly ever going below mezzo forte. In contrast, the Brahms enjoyed a rousing performance. This quartet, a loud piece by nature, benefited from the dynamic of the evening, and it features the violin part mostly in the instrument's lower range where Ku is most comfortable. The finale is marked presto, and the quartet decided to live dangerously, taking it at breakneck speed. EndBlock

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