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Most of us pay to attend concerts that we think we will enjoy, walk into the hall, wait for the artist(s) to step out onto the stage and it all somehow happens. While everyone realizes that there is a lot that goes into presenting a concert, probably most do not know the myriad of details, problems, and costs of bringing an arts event off. So there is a lot to celebrate when a local, homegrown organization that is devoted to presenting an eclectic mix of chamber music survives and thrives for twenty years. As arts organizations as large as symphony orchestras have gone bust, it is no small feat that Durham's own Mallarmé Chamber Players continues to be a viable and influential force in our community's musical life.
Mallarmé was, and still is, the vision of its artistic director, Anna Ludwig Wilson, who has created an organization that is inclusive of many musical styles and cultures. Mallarmé has been celebrating this anniversary milestone all year, but on March 21 they presented a special event to mark this occasion. Chamber music, by its very definition, implies music meant to be played in a room - up close and personal. Unfortunately, opportunities for such presentations are rare. When great musicians playing wonderful music are showcased in a lovely home that, in part, was built to present such concerts, it is a unique treat.
Tucked away among the towering pines of Duke Forest is a home built by the late Arthur Larson, an influential faculty member of Duke Law School, counsel to President Eisenhower, music lover and collector of musical instruments. This writer was fortunate enough to present a guitar/harpsichord recital in this great residence, one of many musical soirees given there. Fortunately, the new owners have continued this tradition and donated the use of their home for this special concert.
The Mallarmé Chamber Players took their name from Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), the leader of the French Symbolist movement which had a great influence on 20th-century poetry. It was a fitting gesture that this 20th-anniversary concert should begin with songs that have texts by Mallarmé. The distinguished soprano Penelope Jensen, along with pianist Deborah Hollis, presented songs by Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith and Henri Sauguet. Dreamy, shimmering, ethereal, and translucent are words that could describe these works. It is no accident that artistic movements like this, and impressionism in art, originated with the French. The language is well suited for these effects. Without being fluent in French it is hard to get the full effect, but Jensen gave these songs just the right character and nuance that supported the beautiful poetry, and in turn Hollis supported the singer with a sensitive touch without being obtrusive.
Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat ( The Soldier's Tale ), in its original form, is a work tailor-made for what Mallarmé does best. That's why it was a bit disappointing that it was not presented in its entirety by seven musicians, narrator, and actors playing the soldier and devil. What we had were five movements in an arrangement for clarinet, violin and piano. This music, in any form, is almost impossible not to like, but the thinness of this arrangement as compared to the original left you wanting more. Pianist Hollis and clarinetist Kelly Burke were joined by guest violinist Yoram Youngerman. The trio gave an energetic and spirited reading.
The truncated second half (more on that later) began with cellist Leonid Zilper, longtime Mallarmé associate and member of the North Carolina Symphony, joining Burke for a Duo by Beethoven. This work, adapted from a set of three duets for clarinet and bassoon, has a questionable authorship. Even considering the early date (1792), it sounds more like the product of a run-of-the-mill working composer than something from the pen of Ludwig van. Also, despite the fact that cello and bassoon parts are often doubled and can sometimes be interchangeable, the combination just did not blend.
While not quite a "one hit wonder," Russian composer Anton Arensky is best known for his Piano Trio in D minor. This is a work rich in beautiful Russian melodies expertly woven into the fabric of a traditional piano trio form. I was looking forward to this as the highlight of the afternoon, especially with the Russian cellist Zilper playing. So it was baffling when it was announced that they would be playing only the third and fourth movements! The haunting and passionate Elegia began the performance instead of our being led into it. This is the kind of theme that gets right into your heart and stays there. The trio gave an impassioned reading before launching into the final movement which, in part, borrows themes from the previous movements.
Afterwards we were treated to a lavish "champagne" reception, got to speak with musicians and benefactors of Mallarmé, and were able to enjoy the lovely ambience of the setting.