Firsts at Reynolda House with Composer Dan Locklair
by William Thomas Walker
An evening of chamber music by Dan Locklair, played by the Mallarmé Chamber Players, had double firsts. The November 10 performance was the Durham-based group's first concert at Reynolda House, and it marked the first program given in the Charlie and Mary Babcock Hall, in the museum house's new wing. It was appropriate to mark the occasion by featuring Locklair's music, since the Charlotte native is Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Music at Wake Forest University.
In brief preliminary remarks about the pieces to be played, Locklair said that his Dream Steps, a dance suite for flute, viola, and harp (1993) led to a constant flow of comments from people who have heard it as the sound track to WUNC-TV's short film "Christmas at Duke Chapel," shown with some frequency around Christmas and as an occasional time-filler. He said that the Mallarmé artists "own this piece" since they have played it many times since they commissioned it. According to the excellent program notes, "Langston Hughes' five-part poem, Lennox Avenue Mural, was the extra-musical stimulus for the piece, suggesting elements of both symbolism and form." The five movements are "Barcaroles and Recitatives," "Awakenings," "Bars of Blues," "Ballade in Sarabande," and "Barcarolles." The work includes sections based on Phrygian and Lydian modes and the pentatonic scale, a blues scale, hints of the German Protestant Advent chorale tune "Wachet auf," and extended use of two Spirituals — "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "There Is a Balm in Gilead." Mallarmé founder Anna Ludwig Wilson was joined by Jonathan Bagg and Jacquelyn Bartlett. They gave the piece a light and airy texture and a rich variety of colors. The scholarly use of ancient modes works, and the tunes were buoyantly carried by the players' rhythmic verve. Locklair has the violist play in an unusually high position at times; Bagg managed these passages with aplomb. The fourth movement features a plaintive viola solo supported by percussive knocks on the harp. Wilson played the sporadic "cutting edge" bits with the same ease she brought to the more melodic portions.
Inspired by Wallace Stevens' poem "Peter Quince at the Clavier," Locklair's Music for Quince, a tone poem for flute, clarinet, violin, and piano, was composed in 1981 and premiered in 1984 by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. The four-part poem, a re-telling of the story of Susannah and the Elders, influenced the moods of the single movement work. The players were Ludwig, Kelly Burke, Hsiao-mei Ku, and Thomas Warburton, whose piano had its lid fully up. Babcock Hall, which seats perhaps 200 people, is an intimate space with lots of hard surfaces. As a whole, this performance could have benefited from a lowering of the dynamics across the board. The instrumental balances were fine, but the loud portions were just a bit too loud, and the quieter portions would have been even more telling at lower levels. In all other respects, the performance was superb, with strong contrasts between the instruments and effective use of color to portray the emotions of the poem. The shrill voices of the elders were unmistakable.
Five paintings on display in Reynolda House — Worthington Whittredge's "The Old Hunting Grounds" (1864), Thomas Hart Benton's "Bootleggers" (1927), Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pool in the Woods, Lake George" (1922), Charles Sheeler's "Conversation Piece" (1932), and Elliott Daingerfield's "Spirit of the Storm" (c.1912) — inspired the composition of Reynolda Reflections, a trio in five movements for flute, cello, and piano. It was premiered at Reynolda House by the Foothills Chamber Players in 2001. Full-color reproductions of the paintings were included in the program. Besides using octatonic, pentatonic, whole-tone, and chromatic scales, Locklair quotes Thomas Tallis' "Third mode melody" from Archbishop Parker's Psalter, more widely known as the theme of Vaughan Williams' famous set of variations for orchestra. Flutist Wilson was joined by cellist Nathan Leyland and Warburton, playing with the piano lid on its short stick. Whether evoking an Impressionistic, dreamy lyricism, suggesting watery reflections, or in contrasting slow and fast rhythms, the playing was superb. Another striking non-musical image in this performance was the extraordinary cello used by Leyland. Its sides and back were decorated with stylized flames that would have done a hot rod proud! He played with a fine rich tone and spot-on intonation despite the cello being suggestive of American Graffiti.