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As part of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens Summer Music in the Gardens series, the Mallarmé Chamber Players brought an exciting program of international chamber music to Kirby Horton Hall. The venue's comfortable, barn-shaped structure proved adequately resonant for chamber music, and its walls of paned glass made the greenery outdoors a serene backdrop to the performance. This was the perfect way to enjoy a midsummer evening at Duke Gardens: indoors, air-conditioned and serenaded by a trio of the Mallarmé Chamber Players' finest.
The appeal of a presentation by the Mallarmé Chamber Players isn't just the superb talent of its members or intriguing combinations of instruments. Their programs highlight new pieces and exotic genres, re-introduce overlooked compositional jewels, and reexamine canonical chamber works. This time, the performers were flutist Anna Ludwig Wilson, the organization's co-founder, Bo Newsome, oboe and English horn, and Nathan Leyland, cello. Originally, dance pieces by Scott Joplin and Astor Piazzolla had been programmed; the evening's final set brought together a flight of 20th-century chamber suites from France, South America, and the United States.
Jacques Ibert's neoclassical Cinq Pieces en Trio, originally set for flute, oboe, and clarinet, alternated three breezy allegro movements with two quietly jubilant slow movements. The piece was a light start to the program, with the added bonus that Leyland's cello brought a sonorous, woody aspect to a piece whose original texture could sound a bit, er, one-note.
Though the dance theme had been dropped, two pieces explored their motives via Baroque-style dance movements. The juxtaposition of Ulysses Kay's Suite for Flute and Oboe and Peter Schickele's "Dream Dances" suite showed how a similar form could foster vastly different musical content. Kay's suite followed a more traditional pattern — Prelude followed by the lyrical Air, a flirtatious Menuet, and energetic, rhythmically direct Gigue movements. Although Newsome's robust playing overshadowed the flute somewhat in the first movement, Wilson's spine-tingling low range took the spotlight in the second.
One might expect Schickele, the man behind the spurious P.D.Q. Bach, to produce over-the-top whimsy under his own name. But "Dream Dances" combine a five-movement form with intricate phrasal construction and hauntingly pretty harmonies rather than slapstick tropes. Schickele twists the form by combining dances from different eras, placing a fugal, aloof waltz movement between a laconic minuet and a zippy galop featuring hoof beat-style flute rhythms and heavily bowed leaps that create a dramatic, bumpy ride. The most obvious standout, the boogie-woogie-tinged "Jitterbug," brought a crowd-pleasing conclusion to arguably the most artistically compelling piece of the evening.
The program went equatorial for its last two selections, 20th-century Brazilian composer José Vieira Brandão's Duo para oboe e violoncello and "Haydn Tuyero, Chicharras, Galeones" by contemporary Venezuelan cellist and composer Paul Desenne. Brandão's duet coupled the achingly melancholy "Seresta" ("Serenade") and "Desafio" ("Challenge"), marked by clashing hemiola and difficult piano sections in the oboe's high range. Newsome's sound was refreshingly bold and clear, and he tackled the difficult sections in this piece in particular with an athletic gusto. Leyland, meanwhile, performed with satisfying nuance and flexibility — his presence onstage ensured virtuosity at the low end of the sonic spectrum.
Desenne's two multipart movements closed the show with shifts from highly rhythmic to rich, Latin-flavored tutti playing; the piece illustrated the European travels of 18th-century Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda. The first movement of this programmatic fantasy had Miranda meeting with the likes of Haydn, fluctuating between combinations of European and Latin forms and harmonies. The second took a rhythmic, structurally angular approach at first then receded into a pacified, bittersweet lyrical section.
The Mallarmé Chamber Players' first-class playing consistently attracts audiences, but the group's inventive programming and choice of venues like this can turn an exceptional performance into a memorable event. In this case, the bucolic setting and music ranging from quirky to exotic afforded a refreshing take on midsummer pleasures.