The paradox of the Durham-based Mallarmé Chamber Players is that, although music is at its core, there is so much more to this organization: community involvement, commissioning of new works, and educational outreach – just to name a few. All of these different musical and community hats came together in their annual fundraising gala that usually takes place in a private home, reinforcing the intimate aspect of chamber music performance. This year's event and locale was truly special as it took place at architect Scott Harmon's lovely renovated loft apartment in the heart of downtown Durham.
Many of the movers, shakers, and familiar faces of chamber music lovers entered the rather nondescript street entrance into a spacious and sun-filled space that retained the expanse of its former use but is now an elegant and welcoming home. We all enjoyed a pre-concert celebration featuring the wonderful gastronomic creations of the French bistro literally around the corner, Rue Cler, and a very generous and seemingly bottomless supply of excellent wine. By the time the actual concert began, everyone was well acquainted and relaxed – some above the .08 limit.
This unique event was named "Down Home NC," and it had the very special feature of presenting five works, all written by North Carolina composers, the "oldest" having been born in 1955. The opportunity to hear such a rare event was further enhanced by all but one of the composers being present, introducing their work and discussing their compositional process and philosophy.
Suzanne Rousso, artistic director of Mallarmé doing double duty as emcee and violist in several works, called the attendees to order to hear the first work: "Bacchus Chaconne" by Lawrence Dillon, Composer in Residence at the UNC School of the Arts. He was the sole absent composer so Eric Pritchard, first violinist of the Ciompi Quartet, introduced this wonderfully concise duo for violin and viola. This modern look back to the oft-used Baroque chaconne is an expressive miniature that set a nice tone for the rest of the evening.
J. Mark Scearce is well-known in this area both as Director of the Music Department at NC State and composer of many excellent works, several premiered by the Ciompi Quartet. The cellist of that esteemed quartet, Fred Raimi, was joined by clarinetist Christopher Grymes for a fascinating work made even more compelling by Scearce's cogent remarks. Called Squaring the Circle, we unfortunately got to hear only the first movement of this plaintive, Islamic-based work. The other-wordly effect was created by the most unusual C-F-Db-Ab scordatura tuning of the cello, for which the entire movement was played on open strings only.
You can't have an evening of contemporary music without a piece featuring a pre-recorded part, and tonight's was "A Function of Memory" by East Carolina University composer Ed Jacobs. Ostensibly based on a one-second snippet from John Coltrane's recording of "Moment's Notice," this clarinet/CD duo was a fascinating display of unusual clarinet techniques and perhaps the uneasy realization that technology may supplant human performance.
An important new work has now been added to the slim pickings of violin-cello duets that are dominated by the wonderful duos of Kodály and Ravel. We were indeed fortunate to hear from composer Bill Robinson as he described the genesis and circumstances of Ananda Duo. The high and low end of the Ciompi Quartet (just in pitch, guys!) played this engaging two-movement work that was written for this occasion. It is an accessible and tuneful work (as the second movement title “A Catchy Little Tune” implies) yet filled with technical challenges for the players as well as depth for the audience. The original commission called for a work of no more than 15 minutes, but the composer has not ruled out an eventual expansion of this welcome addition for a relatively neglected duo combination.
The featured event of the evening was the world premiere of "A Sense of Place" by Bo Newsome, better known to some as the excellent oboist in many ensembles including the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle. For this composition for violin, viola, cello and clarinet, he is the first annual recipient of an award from the Anna Ludwig Wilson New Music Fund, which honors Mallarmé's founder and former artistic director. As described by the composer, this is a programmatic work that endeavors to describe the wide diversity of people and life in Durham. Like much of descriptive music of this kind – even the most well-know ones – the question always arises as to which came first: the actual music or the literary accompaniment telling you what it's about. While I can't say that I was able to discern anything "Durhamish" about the sounds coming from this well-played piece, I was very impressed with Newsome's excellent string writing in this beautifully wrought work for an unusual orchestration.
As usual, you've got to give Mallarmé a lot of credit for their inventive programming. But tonight was even more special because they chose an entire evening of new music for their annual fundraising gala. This not only showed an actual commitment to the support of contemporary composers but also clearly displayed a faith in the support of the community for music of our time. You'd be hard pressed to find a more courageous example of backing up your artistic beliefs.