Mallarmé Chamber Players is not just a collection of musicians performing an eclectic mix of music; they are a philosophy of music and life, an organization that teaches, mentors and is inclusive of all cultures within our community, and a place for like-minded professionals from all over the country to come and share their musical gifts. The opening concert of Mallarme’s 2012-13 Season was a perfect exemplar of this with guest bassist Rick Robinson and five celebrated local string players taking the stage at the Hayti Heritage Center for a program called “Chamber Music for the People!”
So, basically what we had here was your standard string sextet – or was it? For those familiar with the two great sextets of Brahms, Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” and several others, the usual configuration is two violins, two violas, two cellos. This afternoon we were short one cello, so Rick Robinson – on bass – took over the second cello part in a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s String Sextet in A. The other members of the ensemble consisted of Suzanne Rousso, Artistic Director of Mallarmé, playing second viola, plus four distinguished members of the North Carolina Symphony: violist Christopher Fischer, violinists Dovid Friedlander and Jacqueline Wolborsky, and Bonnie Thron, principal cellist.
Although there had always been, to some degree, a mixture of the sacred and profane in classical music, the Czech composer Dvořák raised this delicate balancing act to an artistic level that was unprecedented and perhaps has still yet to be surpassed. Dvořák was still a relatively unknown organist when he composed his only string sextet in 1878 in just two weeks time! This four- movement work, while traditional in form, is a perfect melding of folk elements of Bohemia as in his Slavonic Dances, with romantic elements like Brahms, who was an ardent champion of Dvořák’s compositions. The outer movements are mostly in the button-down tradition, while it is the middle movements, titled "Dumka" and "Furiant," where the music and the players leave the concert hall behind and go out into the village and dance halls and party like it’s 1879. All the players aptly alternated between this earthy, peasant-like feel and the exalted hoity-toity concert hall affect.
I doubt that it is a mere coincidence that Mallarmé and guest Rick Robinson chose the Dvořák work for the first half of the program. What Dvořák was doing with this, and numerous other of his compositions, was trying to tear down the walls between what we now refer to as “popular music” and classical music. Mr. Robinson, in a sense, is a modern day Dvořák. Known as “Mr. CutTime,” this Detroit Symphony bassist is a passionate advocate for classical music and musicians stepping down from the pedestal of the concert hall and merging into the musical life of the community: schools, clubs, bars, coffeehouses…basically anywhere where people congregate. This is far from a new concept, but Robinson’s personality, aggressive advocacy of this, and his remarkable playing, composing and arranging skills put him in the forefront of this movement.
The second half began with one of Robinson’s unique and clever arrangements: a string sextet version of that popular concert opener, Overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka. This crowd pleaser is hard enough for the string section in its original, but with all the wind parts gone and only one person per part, the exposure displayed their virtuosity and verve. At the recap, Robinson let out a loud “Yeehaaa.” Try that at Carnegie Hall!
The next two pieces were Robinson originals: “Gitcha Groove On” and “Pork ‘n Beans.” In both of these I was most impressed with his remarkably fluent and original contrapuntal writing. There was a fully realized, quite complex fugue with a spicy Latin beat by the bass that was the equal of any contemporary fugal writing. Although Mr. Robinson’s compositional skills are quite exceptional, I’m not sure that – based on what I heard – this would necessarily “convert” someone who had no exposure to or previously rejected classical music. Let’s face it, some people just don’t like it, and placing a flatted fifth or some blues licks in a piece won’t always pique an interest.
The best was saved for last and Robinson even said it was his “most well known work.” City of Trees is based on the neighborhood in Detroit where he grew up which once boasted hundreds of towering Dutch Elm trees. Succumbing to disease, almost all of these trees were decimated, and Robinson wrote this work as a metaphor for the destruction of neighborhoods, culture and a sizable chunk of a generation. His erudite and passionate verbal remarks were as moving as the beautifully crafted and emotional music. Whether Robinson continues to straddle what tends to be disparate musical worlds or reverts to a singular approach, one thing is certain: this is a man with extraordinary musical skills.