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For 19 years, the Mallarmé Chamber Players have made us expect the unexpected, but last night's performance at the Durham Arts Council still came as a surprise. In a program titled "Mostly Mozart," violinists Hsiao-mei Ku and Carol Chung, violist David Marschall and cellist Leonid Zilper teamed up with members of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE) to present a program of mostly Mozart's music. Choreographed by NCYTE's director, Gene Medler and some of the dancers, it was an evening of surprise and delight for audience and performers alike.
Before the concert, Medler and his dancers presented an enlightening demonstration/lecture about the company and the history and styles of tap dancing. Let's face it, most of us associate tap dancing with Fred Astaire at its best and Shirley Temple and Amateur Hour at its worst. Last night it became clear that these were not cutsy student dancers, but accomplished artists schooled in a slew of percussive dance techniques and styles that date back to prehistoric times. Within the repertory of the ensemble are examples of clogging, African drum dances, as well as popular modern tap routines. In one demonstration of a complex dance without music, the members showed their ability, precision and imaginativeness. This concert was the first time, however, that they had used classical music as background music.
Their sensitivity to music was apparent in the first number with the musicians, the Allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik . Carrie Barnett, Elizabeth Burke, Julia Eisen, Rachel Kiel and Elena Steponaitis tapped out the opening rhythm of the movement. Sometimes the tapping imitated the rhythm of one or more of the instrumental voices; at others they supplied a rhythmic counterpoint to the music. In the style of a concerto grosso and in keeping with ballet and modern dance conventions, one or two dancers at a time would present elaborate figurations to the accompaniment of the others. One of the greatest surprises was their handling of dynamics-yes, you can tap dance pianissimo.
Not all of the program was choreographed. Mozart wrote two duos for violin and viola, surreptitiously helping his friend, Michael Haydn (younger brother of Franz Joseph), who was commissioned to write six such duos but could finish only four due to illness. Mozart tried to simplify his style to correspond to Haydn's, but his own musical personality unavoidably peeks through. Chung and Marschall played the duo in B-flat, a charming work, especially in the gentle slow movement. Chung had some difficulty with the tone quality and intonation during the first movement but then the two settled down to a sensitive musical performance, especially in the theme and variations of the finale.
After intermission came the sole non-Mozart part of the program, CutTide, Philadelphia Freedom , a contemporary dance by nine members of NCYTE that demonstrated their rhythmic versatility with rapid changes in tempo and mood of the accompanying jazzy music.
Then it was back to Mozart. Mozart wrote his last three string quartets on commission from Prussia's King Frederick William II, an accomplished cellist. Consequently, the cello has prominent parts rather than serving only as a harmonic bass, as was the custom at the time. The musicians performed the first of the three, in D Major, K.575. This is one of Mozart's most facile and sunny quartets, and the musicians performed it appropriately with élan and a light touch.
The program ended with Barnett, Kiel and Steponaitis of the NCYTE dancing to the last movement, Allegro assai , of Mozart's String Quartet in B Major, K.458, known as the "Hunt" Quartet. It was a virtuoso performance with the three dancers weaving in and out of the widely spaced musicians, once again alternating between rhythmic imitation and original contrapuntal rhythms. Their tapping also served to sharply delineate the musical structure of both Mozart movements, becoming more complex and daring during the development sections and even rhythmically ornamenting the repeated expositions.
It occurred to us that the addition of tap dancers might work well for introducing classical music to new audiences. Saturday's audience included Mallarmé regulars but also many people whose clapping between movements and after well executed dance riffs indicated that they had rarely or never attended a classical concert. And incidentally, a performance for school children was scheduled for Monday noon, Sept. 9, at the Durham Arts Council.