The Mallarmé Chamber Players concluded their 2007-2008 season with two performances of real chamber music at the home of Lex and Kathy Silbiger: seats for 40 in the large room of the house, the owner's harpsichord (Willard Martin, 1981) featured, hardwood floors, lots of wall space, and a high and complex ceiling to distribute the sound.
For this event, Mallarmé scheduled a mix of both baroque and new compositions and added a dancer, Paige Whitley-Bauguess, to provide even more variety. And variety there was, about as much as can be had from five performers. In addition to Whitley-Bauguess, there were Stephanie Vial, cello; Rebecca Troxler, flute; Bo Newsome, oboe; and Elaine Funaro, harpsichord. I found it very disappointing that with so much historical music on the program and so much historical skill in the orchestra, the decision was made to use modern instruments and mostly modern technique. All except Newsome are completely at home on authentic instruments. Having vented, I wish now to write about how good the performance was.
The opening piece, J. H. Schmeltzer's "Seranata con altre arie," is a piece of funny music to begin with, even before Whitley-Bauguess's masterful choreography and dancing. As the music began, Scaramouche, with a long, very long-nosed mask and an unwavering scowl, stalked into the room. Whitley-Bauguess, dressed all in black (with a little green trim), in a costume sewn by herself from a historical illustration, changed costume on stage with each movement, including mask changes and the addition and removal of a skirt. The change from dancing like a man was surprisingly effective. Her footwork and gestures were equaled in effectiveness by her eyes as she looked directly at various members of the audience without ever coming out of character. The music was crisp and precise — but not lovely, because of the modern instruments and technique.
Dan Locklair's Arias and Dance (whimsically named Ayre, Stomp, Hymn, and Dance and for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord) was commissioned in 2007 by Aliénor, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that promotes new music for the harpsichord through concerts, commissions and a competition. It was performed at the 2008 Conclave of the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society in Winston-Salem. The "Ayre" began with a fugal dialog between the oboe and flute with pizzicato cello; the fugal work spread through all the voices in turn. The middle section included bell-like tinklings in the high register of the buff-stopped harpsichord. There was a very neat save at the da capo when Troxler's music fell on the floor. In "Stomp," each instrument got a little solo riff with the harpsichord, then neat duets between the various pairings possible.
Funaro played with her usual verve and drive. As to be expected in a harpsichord commission, Locklair provided lots of notes, complicated rhythms, and fancy figures. Much of the anger so typical of modern compositions of 20 years ago was pleasantly absent from this piece, replaced instead with joy.
"Hymn" began with a harpsichord introduction in the low register, reminiscent of French music of 275 years ago, when it was done better. "Hymn" was languid and seductive. Locklair has a good understanding of the timbres and made good use of pizzicato. The oboe passages were much nicer when the oboe was allowed to come down into its lower range. "Dance" was a nice piece, although the harpsichord writing, precisely executed by Funaro did not seem particularly idiomatic. The harpsichord had a lot of drumming passages contrasted with long swirls of sound.
In the unaccompanied cello suite, S.1009, which Stephanie Vial played from memory, there was an intimacy in the Prélude that enabled hearing the performer's very breathing. The respect in the room for her playing was impressive. It was not visible from the front row, but a companion reported that by the end of the suite there was some serious nodding off, a hazard with this most inaccessible of Bach's music, especially on a Sunday afternoon.
The modern cello and technique are least problematic when there is no other instrument involved. I believe the Allemande made me happier at this concert than I would have been in the East Room with Casals. The phrasing at the beginning of the Courante was not as clear and obvious as it had been throughout the Allemande, but improved as the movement progressed. The transitions from the Courante to the Bourée I and from that to the Bourée II and to the Gigue were subito and more successful than the longer pauses between the earlier movements. Vial used a light touch on the Gigue and there was still a lot of sound.
The program closed with the "Folies d'Espagne" of Marin Marais, played by the ensemble and danced by Whitley-Bauguess. This was the high point of the concert and brought repeated rounds of applause.
A generous reception followed, with lots of Bogle, cold spring rolls, and chocolate tarts. Yummy. Almost as good as the music and dancing.