The North Carolina Museum of Art’s blockbuster summer exhibit, "Temples and Tombs," is a sampling of the British Museum’s trove of ancient Egyptian of artifacts and art. To complement this exhibit, the last of the 2006-7 Sights & Sounds on Sundays chamber music series, co-sponsored by the NCMA and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, featured the Mallarme Chamber Players in a concert of poetry and chamber music.
With traditional music, selections from 20th-century Egyptian classical composers, and brief readings from Egyptian-born poet and English professor Pauline Kaldas, the program’s varied musical perspectives and Kaldas’ images of the country in a globalized world brought the exhibit’s rarified subject to life with relevance to the present day.
Special guest performer Naji Hilal, a Lebanese composer and oud player, opened the afternoon with three short solo tunes by Egyptian composers. A predecessor to the Western European lute and the guitar, the oud has a flat front with a few sound holes protected by delicately carved wooden lattices and a convex back to its teardrop-shaped body. Rather than the acute articulation and silvery afterglow common to instruments like the sitar or the baglama, the oud’s gentle shimmer is more like that of a small 12-string acoustic guitar. Players traditionally used a finger-length pick made from tortoiseshell, although most players today use carefully shaped plastic picks.
Hilal’s contribution to the program consisted of brisk, technique-driven songs. After a quick explanation of the quarter-tone dissonances typical to many types of Middle Eastern music and a brief traditional improvisation on the piece’s scale came Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s “Balad El-Mahboub.” The establishment of the theme, along with some lithely-picked explorations, gave way to a section that began with plain strumming; then a speedy race through quick scales and rapid-fire turn figures brought the piece to its conclusion. Riyad Al-Sunbati’s “Longa Riyad,” featuring great displays of Hilal’s technical prowess, also showed a masterful command of rubato to give form to the music; “Elhelwah Deh,” by the populist early 20th-century songwriter Sayed Darweesh, showcased Arabic lyrics depicting the Egyptian peoples’ everyday lives and Hilal’s tenor wail.
Following a brief, improvised encore full of buzzy, energetic chords and spidery riffs, Hilal ceded the stage to Kaldas for the first of the program’s two short readings from the poet’s volume, Egyptian Compass. This set concerned Kaldas’ feelings and experiences not only as an immigrant to America, but also as an Egyptian-American visiting Egypt. Her first poem compared city life in Cairo and in one of her adopted American hometowns, Boston; “Back,” erasing the artificial glamour of a foreign city typically seen by tourists, described the heady, but almost toxic smells of Cairo; the third, “Morning,” compared social relationships in Kaldas’ two home countries by comparing commonly used greetings — the mumbled American “G’morning” compared with Egyptian idioms that translate to “Morning of jasmine” or “Morning of light.” Although her poems read beautifully on paper, Kaldas’ readings deadened the atmosphere slightly; amid Hilal’s exotic songs and the chamber ensemble’s esoteric, complexly structured contemporary pieces, the admittedly brief recitations simply didn’t hold audience attention.
The Mallarmé Chamber Players organization has many performing members, but concerts are given by groups of three to seven musicians. A sublimely skilled and adventurous group — flutist Brooks de Wetter Smith, bassoonist Michael Burns, English hornist Mary Ashley Barrett, cellist Nathan Leyland, and harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett — took on works by Iranian folk-fusion composer Reza Vali and preeminent Egyptian composer, performer, and ethnomusicologist Halim El-Dabh with fascinating results.
De Wetter-Smith and Leyland took the stage to perform Vali’s 1991 Folk Songs, Set No. 9, an eight-movement suite that is far more than a flute-cello duet. The piece incorporates nontraditional techniques such as multiphonics (vocalizing while playing a wind instrument) and note-bending, and tambourine, tom-tom, and even the body of Leyland’s cello provided percussion; but the most intriguing of the idiophones used in this set of Vali’s folk songs was a set of crystal goblets, played by Leyland in the sixth movement, when he struck the goblets with a rubber xylophone mallet.
The gleaming crystal could have been a distraction, but the whole piece proved to be delightfully unconventional. The first movement began with a shivering, insectile combination of de Wetter-Smith’s multiphonics and the deep, woody timbre of Leyland’s cello tone. As the piece continued, the airy, joyful sound of a calliope was invoked; hand and pencil taps on the body and strings of Leyland’s cello set a peaceful meter to de Wetter-Smith’s virtuosic alto and soprano flute playing; the numinous tone of the crystal glasses made an appearance in a section that opened with buoyant pizzicato cello and a cappella vocal accompaniment; and the final movement climaxed in a frenzy of flute trills and a jarring tom-tom stinger. Vali has produced more than a dozen folk song sets since he began in 1978, and this intrepid, spot-on performance made quite a good case for the entire series.
After another short recitation of poems by Kaldas concerning her Egyptian-American daughters, de Wetter-Smith, Barrett, Burns, and Bartlett emerged for the concert’s finale. Though not so replete with novel techniques and tones as the Vali piece, El-Dabh’s 1962 A Look at Lightning bears a dense and rapidly unfolding structure due to its origin as a ballet score written for the Martha Graham Dance Company. The music is taken from three of the composer’s piano suites from the mid-1950s, split into multiple sections interspersed with added short, spidery harp solos, and then grouped into four larger sections. Bartlett’s prestigious teaching positions and impressive résumé could not have prepared the audience for her commanding harp technique and luminous tone in the lower range, and she very nearly stole the show on the piece’s harp interstices. The calculated dissonance of El-Dabh’s signature heteroharmonic style was performed with immaculate intonation and eerie, vibrant tonal blend by the winds, and after the piece’s difficult roadmap had been traversed, the audience responded with enthusiastic, if slightly exhausted, awe.