Songs of the Spirit
by Jeffrey Rossman
Despite competition from two Sunday afternoon championship football games, one featuring the home team Panthers, the parking lot at St. Joseph's Performance Center was packed full. At first I thought that I might have the wrong venue, but this was the right place for another one of the Mallarmé Chamber Players' eclectic, innovative, and inclusive events. The program, entitled "Songs of the Spirit," did indeed have a decidedly spiritual bent that transcended several cultures.
Arriving about fifteen minutes early, I soon realized that I had forgotten about the pre-concert performance of music and dance by the Philippine-American Association of NC. The little I did get to see and hear was a lovely display of beautiful, bright costumes and a delightful chorus. It would have been a nice addition to have included some background on this group and their culture in either the program notes or a separate insert.
I've remarked previously on this outstanding space at the Hayti Heritage Center. Anytime a building or a room makes you feel good just by being there, you know that the architects and designers have done their job. St. Joseph's Performance Center is such a place.
The afternoon started off with a work by William Grant Still, a composer Mallarmé has been championing lately. "Miniatures," for flute, oboe and piano, is a mix of spirituals and folk songs from several cultures, all brought together in one work. It might be thought of as a metaphor for this concert, Mallarmé, and our musical community. The five brief movements featured recognizable tunes, from the opening "I Ride an Old Paint," which Copland used in Rodeo , to the Scottish "Froggy Went a-Courting." The wet weather wreaked havoc on Bo Newsome's oboe, and he was forced to perform minor surgery on his fragile instrument several times. Mallarmé artistic director Anna Wilson, flute, and Thomas Warburton, piano, made spirited and lively contributions to yet another wonderful, little-known chamber work that Mallarmé has uncovered. My only criticism is that the trio was bunched on the left side of the stage and seemed to short-change those sitting on the right side of the room.
The same flute and oboe players were joined by clarinetist Kelly Burke and percussionist Thom Limbert for the world premiere performance of on the ineffable nature of the divine being by Sidney Marquez Boquiren. Boquiren, who received his Ph.D. in composition from Duke University in 1999, has had his music performed in this area by the Ciompi Quartet as well as other artists. Many of these works are spiritual in nature, and this was another example of his attempt to express, in music, the inexpressible. The score is in three distinct sections that have a typical arc of rising from slow-moving, somewhat static rhythms through a more frenzied section and then returning to a peaceful repose at the end. All four players gave a brilliantly controlled performance that belied the technical difficulties.
I regret that until this concert I had not heard Lois Deloatch, another great singer who emerged from this area. She performed three distinct mini-sets, each with a different, single instrumentalist. First was a traditional spiritual, "Soon-A Will Be Done," backed up by Thom Limbert playing just a snare drum with brushes. She has a powerful, earthy voice that has a range from an almost masculine lower register to a rich, expressive alto. At times she reminded me of the late North Carolina native Nina Simone. Following that was a simple but effective arrangement for piano and voice of "Amazing Grace." Part of what piqued my interest in this concert was a vocal treatment of "A Love Supreme," the supreme masterpiece of the legendary John Coltrane - another native North Carolinian. The practice of taking purely jazz instrumentals and setting lyrics to those tunes is a long tradition probably best done by the great vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Sometimes it works fine and other times it sounds downright silly. I'm afraid the latter applied to Deloatch's adaptation of "A Love Supreme." Cellist Timothy Holley provided the recurring bass pattern while the singer sang a melody and lyrics that had no discernible relation to what is regarded as one of the greatest jazz recordings. Some works just are not meant for this treatment and this is definitely one of them. She followed with Miles Davis' "All Blues," a tune that has been done this way by several artists and is much more amenable to lyric vocalization.
Commissioned in 1993 by Yo-Yo Ma, Songs of the Spirit by Thomas Jefferson Anderson, currently residing in Chapel Hill, was given its world premiere by Timothy Holley, cello, accompanied by Warburton. The composer writes that "The roots of this work can be found in the music of Hale Smith, Sir Michael Tippett, Witold Lutoslawski, Elliot Carter, and Negro Spirituals." This, to me, seems to be precisely the problem. Attempting to meld the dense, academic style of a composer like Carter with the freedom, swing, and exuberance of spirituals just does not work. Despite a well-played and passionate performance by Holley and Warburton, this is a work that attempts to breed two totally different species - impossible, biologically, and exceedingly difficult to achieve, musically. The results seemed forced and disjointed. I really wanted to like this piece but I will definitely need another hearing before I can recommend it.
As in the past, the audience was invited to remain after the concert to ask questions of composers Boquiren and Anderson. We then had a most pleasant surprise of being invited to a bountiful and generous feast of home cooked Philippine delicacies provided by members of the Philippine-American Association of NC. Then it was home to watch the Panthers beat up Philadelphia!