The Mallarmé Chamber Players' 2009-10 season finale, "Songs for the Soul," produced and provided much more than a Sunday afternoon's musical enrichment, education, and entertainment in the Carolina Theater. The occasion developed around a different kind of "soul music" — a CD release "party-and-a-half" for the MCP's latest recording project, the celebration of a new performance approach to the Negro (or African-American) spiritual in chamber music, and the revival of William Banfield's chamber opera Soul Gone Home.
The program opened with the Afro-American Suite for flute, cello and piano of Undine Smith Moore (1904-89), the "dean of African-American female composers." The Afro-American Suite is a "latent standard" spanning two great musical traditions, and the performance paid respectful homage to both. The spirituals quoted in each movement — "Nobody knows the trouble I see," "I heard the preachin' of the Elder," "Who is dat yonder?," and "Shout all over God's Heaven" — were all spun with a lovely and elastic sense of phrasing between cellist Bonnie Thron and flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta. Pianist Tom Warburton provided a highly sensitive palette of timbral contrasts reminiscent of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and Rachmaninoff throughout. The only gripe any listener might have with this work is that its aural delectability is most apparent and brilliant in its brevity. It is always better to have the audience wanting to hear more.
The set of six spirituals arranged by Brandon McCune for Nnenna Freelon and the ensemble (which included saxophonist Ira Wiggins and percussionist Jonathan Wacker in addition to the musicians who appeared earlier on the program) — "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," "Blessed Assurance," "Come Sunday," "Changed My Name," "Balm in Gilead" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand" — alternated between meditative spirituals and rousing songs of praise. Interpolated musical commentaries from each instrument (and even Freelon's choreography) created a new "wavelength of appreciation" on which the audience was invited to listen and enjoy within each song.
The story in Soul Gone Home tells itself in the chamber opera after Langston Hughes's play — with Nnenna Freelon as Momma and Rannie (in "soul gone home" form) — both of them conversing in dialogue and monologue. The presence of the blues, jazz and R&B influence created "atmosphere" and functioned as wordless "commentator" within the drama which proceeded forth in the space of barely twenty-five minutes. The performance was highly successful — perhaps among the most memorable to date — an easy mark to reach with a work of such active currency among performers and audiences. In this performance, SGH still visually functioned as chamber music in sextet form instead of a "staged" production. Whether or not the issue of a fully-staged production is ultimately made part of the performance tradition of this work, it's celebratory "revival" and recorded release make it a very attractive and "ambassadorial" work among chamber ensembles as musicians seek to "keep it real" in efforts to reach new audiences — a differently-programmed generation of listeners. A post-concert discussion with Ms. Freelon, Dr. Banfield and Mr. McCune concluded with a fitting comment made by visual artist Vita Jones, who thanked all three for their collaboration — "a union of skill, heart, and faith." A fine reception and CD signing was had at The Republic Bar & Lounge on West Main Street. A kind word of deferred gratitude is also owed to Anna Ludwig Wilson, whose leadership as Artistic Director (Emeritus) of the Mallarmé Chamber Players helped bring the SGH recording project to complete fruition. If only "souls" got to "go home" like this more often....