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"We are going to branch out into more spaces in downtown Durham, in order to broaden our audience base" said Anna Wilson, Artistic Director of the Mallarmé Chamber Players, in opening remarks for the concert at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Durham. And sure enough, there were a large number of unfamiliar faces in the audience, in part because of the participation of the Carolina Boys Choir in the program. Noted for innovative programming, Mallarmé lived up to its reputation with an extremely varied program featuring two chamber works, including a world premiere, a contemporary suite for harpsichord and the two little known works for boys' choir.
The concert opened with the familiar Mozart Oboe Quartet in F Major, K.370, with oboist Bo Newsome, violinist Daniel Shaughnessy, violist Suzanne Russo and cellist Lisa Shaughnessy. Newsome has a lovely tone and excellent intonation, but the quirky acoustics of the hall made the oboe sound overpowering and the strings barely audible in the first movement. By the second movement Newsome toned down his sound and they got the balance right. But the strings still sounded lifeless.
One of the avenues for the renewal of the Harpsichord repertoire is the Aliénor International Composition Competition for new harpsichord music. Elaine Funaro, a strong advocate of the competition, played with rhythm and élan the Suite Española by Timothy Brown, first prize winner in the fifth Aliénor competition. The four-movement work, which pays homage to Spanish composer and pianist Isaac Albéniz, imitates the plucking and strumming sounds of the guitar in the first two movements, Malagueña and Romanza. Only in the middle of the third movement, Seguidillas, does Brown try to make the harpsichord sound like Albéniz's own instrument, the piano. The last movement, Tango, may not be Spanish, but it is a lot of fun.
For generations, partsongs have been a mainstay of English musical life, and Edward Elgar contributed a significant number of these. His three-part song (s,s,a) Snow, Op.26, No.1, was composed in 1894 to a poem by his wife, Caroline Alice. Accompanied by oboe, violin and piano, the Carolina Boys Choir, under its Musical Director William Graham, demonstrated with their precision and wonderful dynamic range why they have such an enthusiastic following. Lady Elgar's late-Victorian poem, with its subtlety of a sledgehammer, is just that - late Victorian.
Last year, while Wilson was away on a sabbatical, the Mallarmé board decided to honor her long service to the organization by commissioning oboist and composer Newsome to compose a new work in her honor. Unconscious Spiral for flute, violin, viola and cello, is, according to the composer, a tribute to Wilson's spirit that doesn't quit, especially in her attempts to create bridges between communities. The ten-minute composition is in one movement, but divided into continuous slow and fast sections, like a suite. It begins and ends mysteriously, and the overall impression is rather of an undulating wave than a spiral winding up. Musically, it is readily accessible but, like most new compositions, we would like to hear it a few times before passing judgement. Flutist Wilson's penetrating tone, like Newsome's oboe in the Mozart Quartet, overpowered the strings.
Charles Davidson (b.1929) is a composer and scholar on Jewish music and liturgy on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. his Baroque Suite: Children, the Heritage of the Lord for children choir, flute cello and harpsichord is a setting of poems in English translation by the 12th century Spanish Jewish physician, philosopher and poet Yehudah ben Shmuel Halevi, one of the greatest Jewish lyricists of the middle ages. His poems, in language reminiscent of the Song of Songs, are in praise of the Lord and man's need to worship him. Davidson's setting is in the form of a Baroque suite opening with an instrumental Prelude followed by a Chorale, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, Fugue and ending with an Intrada - Aria. The music, very Handelian in tone, is uncomplicated and folksy. The Carolina Boys Choir again demonstrated its polish, singing with great sensitivity to the text, their voices firm and assured. But it also demonstrated one of the weaknesses of boys choirs. Trained as part of a larger ensemble, children, with rare exceptions, feel safe in numbers so that when three of the boys were pulled out to sing the Intrada to the last movement, their voices suddenly lost their firmness and became hesitant and a little off pitch.
The program notes were quite helpful, but the transliteration of the Hebrew song titles, as well as Halevi's name, was atrocious.