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Major transitions are difficult processes, especially for arts organizations that want to ensure continued artistic integrity and excellence along with financial health. After founding Mallarmé Chamber Players in 1984 and lovingly and expertly nurturing its service to the community, Anna Ludwig Wilson has retired as Artistic Director. Replacing her is Suzanne Rousso, who has returned to the Triangle area after a two-year hiatus in Maine.
As Mallarmé embarks on its second 25 years, the first concert was dedicated to a celebration of its maiden season, a program named "In the Beginning" that featured works performed during the first season. The program took place at downtown Durham's First Presbyterian Church, a venue that is becoming quite sought after since its recently completed renovation.
Several of the works played feature texts or are indirectly influenced by Stephane Mallarmé (1842-98), the French symbolist poet who is the namesake of this wonderful chamber music ensemble. Claude Debussy was an active participant in Mallarmé's intellectual circle, and his impressionistic compositions are often equated with Mallarmé's poetry. Unaccompanied flute works are a rare breed, but Debussy's "Syrinx" is one of the best known and most performed. Rebecca Troxler, Associate Professor of Music at Duke, was the soloist, and she expertly captured the otherworldliness of the Greek myth of Syrinx and Pan. Her lush, rich tone shone through even though her solo ended up being somewhat of a duet with a very long passing train whistle.
Next were a set of songs, one each by Henry Sauget and Maurice Ravel and two by Debussy. The performers were two musicians who go way back with Mallarmé: soprano Penelope Jensen and pianist Tom Warburton. Even before they began, it was a nice change to see Ms. Jensen on stage positioned slightly above and behind the piano, and singing without an armful of music scores. All of the songs had texts by Stephane Mallarmé, texts that — although the English translations were in the program notes — are inextricably tied to the musical flow and cadence of the French language. Warburton is a skilled and sensitive accompanist who has great instincts that support the singer. Jensen displayed her characteristically focused sound and ability to convey both the beauty of the vocal line and the deeper meaning of the poetry.
After J.S. Bach composed his epochal six suites for unaccompanied cello, that genre remained pretty much barren until the 20th century, when there was an explosion in the exploration of the cello's solo capabilities. Max Reger, Ernest Bloch, Britten, and George Crumb are just a few of the major composers who wrote such works. Benjamin Britten composed three solo cello suites, and on this occasion we heard Fred Raimi, longtime cellist of the Ciompi Quartet, play the third one, written in 1971 for Mstislav Rostropovich. Raimi gave a very informative introduction to this austere work before he sat down to play this devilishly difficult nine-movement work. Britten can be a hard sell, especially in works like this that are generally slow and emotional. Where Shostakovich, and others, can wrench your heart and really grab you, Britten tends to become the British stereotype: guarded, unable/unwilling to fully express what you feel, and somewhat haughty. Raimi was masterful in engaging the audience and executing an unrelenting litany of double stops and lyrical and flowing sections along with a moto perpetuo movement that shows you what practicing all those boring scales is for.
There is always something new to experience in a Mallarmé concert; this time it was a piece called The Season of Time by Miriam Gideon (1906-96), a composer whose name is new to me. This is a wonderful set of ten very brief songs based on ancient Japanese Tanka poetry. Written for soprano, flute, cello, and piano/celesta, this is a work that uses the instruments in a sparse but highly effective style that highlights the fleeting sentiment of each section.
The finale was a fan favorite: Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat ( "The Soldier's Tale") in the composer's reduced version for piano, violin, and clarinet. Although the Mallarmé songs during the first half worked beautifully with the singer above and behind the piano, a similar setup for this work and instrumentation was disastrous. Despite Warburton's skilled control and attention to dynamics, he drowned out the other two players most of the time. Clarinetist Nicholas Lewis was completely lost except when playing loudly in the high registers, primarily because he was facing away from the audience. Although she played much of this difficult score with conviction and excellent intonation, violinist Claudia Warburg just did not have the rhythmic punch and spikiness that is pivotal to much of Stravinsky's music from this period.
The next concert for the Mallarmé Chamber Players may be found at http://cvnc.org/calendar/series/triangle/MallarmeChamberPlayers.html.