Chamber Music Review



A Romantic 20th Century

November 4, 2001 - Durham, NC:


On Sunday, November 4, in the Durham Arts Council Building, the Mallarmé Chamber Players did what they do best: present new and rarely heard music. The program entitled Wings of Romance represented the mellower side of 20th century American music. All works but one were a far cry from the dissonances and musical experimentation so popular in mid-century, containing few harmonies that would clash with even with the most conservative musical sensibilities. 

Guest artist for the concert was soprano Shana Blake Hill, currently singing opera in the Los Angeles area and familiar to Triangle audiences as Mimi in the Triangle Opera's La Bohéme two years ago. At the time we commented that her voice was too small and her vibrato too large. Well, in DAC's small hall the size of her voice was just right, and she's tightened up her vibrato.

The highlight of the concert was Fireflies , a set of 10 charming miniatures for voice and piano by Paul Stofft of poems by Rabindranath Tagore. Stofft called these pieces "Miniature tone poems," ranging in mood from the somber "My Life's Empty Flute" to the humorous "Worm Thinks it Strange," a mock-serious worm's-eye commentary on the meaning of life. Hill, accompanied by pianist Deborah Hollis, gave a very expressive performance, using her operatic experience to act out some of the songs.

Sadly, Stofft, who was the moving spirit behind the idea of this concert, died just a month ago, but his widow, who was present at the concert, worked with the performers to bring her husband's ideas to life. 

Norman Dello Joio's (b.1913) creative life spanned nearly three-quarters of the 20th century, and is still going strong. His Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano of 1944 is a pleasant neoclassical work, written under the influence of his teacher, Paul Hindemith, but with more warmth. Flutist Anna Wilson and cellist Leonid Zilper joined Hollis in a well balanced, lively performance. 

The other works on the program were by three of Paul Stofft's teachers. Three Songs for Voice and Piano by Herbert Elwell (1898-1974) was composed between 1942 and 1946. Set to poems by Conrad Aiken, Alice Meynell and Robert Frost, they hark back in tone to the French songs at the end of the 19th century. Because they are gentle and low key, Hill's performance was somewhat too operatic. Elwell, a student of Ernest Bloch and Nadia Boulanger and a winner of the Prix de Rome, taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Oberlin College and was for decades music critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. 

Hill's operatic style was more appropriate for the dramatic Tryptich for High Voice and String Quartet by Arthur Shepherd (1881-1958). She was joined by violinists Hsiao-mei Ku and Carol Chung, violist David Marschall and cellist Zilper. The three songs, also to poems by Rabindranath Tagore, put great demands on the voice. While the two outer songs "He it is" and "Light, my Light" are romantic in character, the middle one, "The Day is no More," shows the influence of French impressionism. A stunningly beautiful melodic line for the cello opens and closes the first song, and Zilper made his cello sing. Shepherd, Associate Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and chairman of the Department of Music at Western Reserve University, was also one of the teachers and major influences on UNC's William Newman.

The odd man out of the afternoon was the Duettino Concertante for flute and percussion by Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970). Composed in 1966, it is, as are most percussion pieces, as much a visual as an aural experience: watching the percussionist, John Hanks, was enough entertainment in itself. Wilson had occasional difficulty keeping in step with the oddball rhythms. The first of the four movements, Alla Marcia , and the last, Tempo di Valzer , can be likened to a face that has gone through a Picasso dissection and reconstitution. Only vague memories of a march or a waltz remained.

As cellist Jonathan Kramer observed in the pre-concert lecture, all these works are the product of academic musicians who made their living primarily as teachers. None of these works in itself will probably ever climb the popularity charts, but together they created an interesting, informative and enjoyable program. Sadly, to our knowledge, only the works by Dahl and Shepherd are available on commercial recordings. Maybe that should be Mallarmé's next recording project.