On the rarest of occasions you encounter a musical evening where not only is it all new and different, but everything about it is astonishing and revelatory. Such was the case with the event I was fortunate to attend on May 4th at the stunning St. Joseph's Performance Hall at the Hayti Heritage Center. In yet another one of the inventive programming coups of the Mallarme Chamber Players, the audience was treated to a world premiere that combined the talents of superb local musicians, nationally acclaimed composer William Banfield, grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon and a beautiful, intimate performing space.
The evening was broken up into two parts, the second being the world premiere of Soul Gone Home a one-act opera based on the 1937 play by Langston Hughes. The first half was taken up with chamber music of African-American composers - works which were probably being heard for the first time by many in attendance. The first two compositions were by William Grant Still (1895-1978), performed by Mallarme Chamber Players members Thomas Warburton, piano and Timothy Holley, cello joined by guests Linda Pereksta, flute/piccolo and Michael Rowlett, clarinet. Folk Suites No.2 and 4 were both written in 1962 for the instruments listed above and are basically a journey through the folk idioms and rhythms of the Americas. The composer included brief notes for each movement of these suites and were provided in the excellent and comprehensive remarks in the program notes. These are charming, tuneful and rhythmically engaging works that would work well as welcome respites from the heavier fare that usually dominates chamber music programs. At least in these compositions, much of Still's style resembles a cross between Dvorak, Gottschalk and Stephen Foster. He distills the essence and elements of indigenous American music into a very accessible style that sustains the integrity of the music these works are based on. It was played with great energy and more importantly a sense of abandon and fun which gave it a feeling ofspontaneity.
The first half closed with a composition and a performance where all you can say is "Wow - where has that piece been hiding and I have to hear more from that composer." The Afro-American Suite by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) for flute, cello and piano was written in 1969. The blending of folk music and styles into "classical" compositionshas been part of the arsenal of many of the greatest European composers for centuries and has been for the most part very successful. However, the attempt in the 20th century to blend jazz, blues or gospel with traditional concert music styles has in my opinion been mostly a dismal failure. From so-called "third stream" music championed by Gunther Schuller in the 1960s, to the often embarrassing spectacle of well-known opera singers assaulting jazz and pop standards with their wide vibratos, these attempts at synthesis end up like oil and water and does a disservice to both. This suite by Moore was a welcome exception. Much of it is blues or spiritual-based and incorporates these into a "classical"form in a way that sounds natural and effortless. The slower movements work especiallywell and my only complaint with the work is that the closing Allegro molto seems entirely too short and flippant to end such a profound work. All 3 performers gave a wonderfully sensitive and heartfelt reading, but cellist Timothy Holley was especially engaging in his tone and phrasing.
Before the evening began, the audience had a unique opportunity to ask questions of William Banfield, distinguished composer of Soul Gone Home . This gave some insight to allow for a more informed appreciation of the work to come. The performers from the first half were joined by Ira Wiggins, saxophones, Cameron Britt, percussion and Nnenna Freelon for this world premiere. Commissioned by Mallarme in celebration of the centennial of Langston Hughes' birth, this is a play that in its relatively short span encompasses much of the human condition - love, regret, anger, humor, forgiveness. The musicians are on stage and the only props are a small, short bench and a scarf.
The setting is a poor mother's home where her only son lies dead. What follows is a conversation between the two that encompasses much of the conflicts that continue to exist in all times in all cultures. However, this "conversation" takes place within one person only - the mother - brilliantly sung and acted by Ms. Freelon. Using only a white scarf as her aid in this dual deception, this role requires the lead to sing both the role of mother and son. Is this all in her head? Is there really even a dead son present? Is she just plain crazy? None of these are answered and there lies the complexity and beauty of the libretto. The music is a mixture of jazz and classical idioms and the musicians gave a superb performance of what sound like a very complex and difficult score. This community is fortunate to have such consummate musicians to present this important new work.
At the completion of the opera the audience was treated to yet another unique experience. The composer, director, and all the performers sat on stage and asked the audience for their comments on the just completed performance. It made everyone there feel part of the creative process and the participants really seemed to welcome the remarks. One of the traits of a great work of art is that you continue to think about it days after you first encounter it. This was the case for Soul Gone Home . I regret that another engagement prevented me from attending the final performance the following day.
Finally, I'd like to relate an incredible coincidence. Just yesterday I got an email inviting me to a reunion of my elementary school - P.S. 233 in Brooklyn, New York. It has been renamed and rededicated as the "Langston Hughes Elementary School."