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The spectacular string players participating in Mallarmé Chamber Player's second concert of the season, held in the Casbah, near Brightleaf Square in Durham, delighted the 60 to 70 listeners with dazzling and endearing sounds in a difficult chamber program ranging from early Romantic works to rockabilly in a jam session. To say the least, the varied programming elevated the interest of the audience.
First on the program, Jennifer Curtis, violin, the central artist of the evening, a Juilliard-trained member of Brooklyn, New York's highly innovative International Contemporary Ensemble and currently a lecturer in violin at UNC-CH, partnered with Suzanne Rousso, viola, who studied at Curtis, Eastman, and New England Conservatory and now serves as the artistic director of Mallarmé Chamber Players. Their energetic and decisive performance of Lawrence Dillon's well-written and highly textured duo, "Bacchus Chaconne," delineated its conversational style with wonderful clarity.
Nate Leyland, cellist who attended the Manhattan School of Music, and performs professionally in North Carolina and beyond, performed Brazilian composer Radamés Gnattali's Sonata for Cello and Guitar with highly acclaimed guitarist, teacher, and scholar, Matthew Slotkin, also out of Eastman and currently teaching at Bloomsburg College, PA. Their effective and sensitive collaboration milked the delicious moments of Brazilian rhythms and some suggestions of jazz in this highly intricate and difficult sonata. The compositional writing and its excellent performance held the attention of the listeners well.
Curtis, Rousso, Leyland, and Slotkin joined forces to perform Paganini's Quartet No. 8 in A, MS 35, for violin, viola, cello, and guitar. It is not surprising that much of the time the writing for violin sounded like a Paganini concerto. Curtis, who excels in virtuosic playing with her incredible technique, delivered a reading in which she clearly phrased the heart and structure of the piece in the midst of the fast-paced passages, leaving this listener marveling at the control she has of the instrument and of her interpretation of the piece – not only to play these swift notes nearly flawlessly but to articulate their musical sense so unbelievably well. Whew! The group accompanied Curtis with precision.
Following intermission, the classical portion of the evening was laid aside for different musical flavors of contemporary American music. First, Curtis joined with Slotkin in Mark O'Connor's String & Threads Suite, which portrays the American musical heritage likely encountered by O'Connor's Irish/Dutch ancestors after their immigration to America as they moved through the colonies and eventually out west during the early 20th century. With Curtis' strong natural musical roots in the folk music of North Carolina, her performance of this style rang with authenticity; her range of emotional expression, from the pathos of sad tunes accompanied by tasteful ornaments to the lively, bouncing, fast sixteenth notes performed with exuberant vim and vigor deeply touched our hearts. Slotkin, with his fine sensitivity and facile technique matched the challenges Curtis poured out.
The evening's finale was like a fireworks display on the Fourth of July as Curtis and Dexter Romweber engaged in an exciting jam session. Romweber, a rockabilly musician (a fusion of rock and hillbilly – country music – originating in the '50s) who grew up in Chapel Hill (as did Jennifer Curtis), has had wide influence nationally as a rockabilly/roots-rock musician, captured on numerous recordings.
The two performed about ten songs, including "Brazil," "You Belong to Me," and "My Baby's Gone," with Romweber playing electric guitar and singing from deep within his being and Curtis backing him either with chords or taking off with her brilliant improvisations. Though a few in the crowd left during this portion, the remaining folks enthusiastically engaged with the energy of the performers, who have quite an ability to connect with an audience. Some people were tapping their feet or swinging their heads in time to the music. One couple danced in the back. Mallarmé's choice of venue, more casual than a concert hall, certainly precipitated the reactions of the audience during the last portion of the program.
Throughout the evening, Jennifer Curtis demonstrated her extraordinary talent to move the hearts of the listeners in many styles, ranging across all periods of violin literature, including the most recent works in the 21st century contemporary scene and America's musical heritage. She has an uncanny and facile ability to improvise – a true crossover violinist. She is certainly a young artist to watch.
Mallarmé's season continues on February 2; for details, click here.
Editor's note: This was also violinist Curtis' third major appearance here this season, coming on the heels of a magnificent recital also involving chamber music at UNC on September 26 and a benefit concert for Mallarmé on September 2. At this point in her career, she seems downright indefatigible.