The unofficial opening of the 2003-4 musical season proved to be a great success on many levels on September 6 as the Mallarmé Chamber Players celebrated their 20th anniversary season with a gift to the community. For a very reasonable ticket price we were able to hear a performance of J.S.Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concerti played by many of Mallarmé’s impressive roster of musicians and some guests. There were several special features to the total package for this event. In the lobby of Reynolds Theatre at Duke University was a video presentation showing the history of the Mallarmé Chamber Players. It was nice to see a visual record of this wonderful organization and especially fun to see pictures of friends 15-20 years younger! CDs and other merchandise were available, as well as three cakes awaiting candles and hungry patrons at the conclusion of the program. Special recognition should be given to the Duke University Institute of the Arts for saving the day when the original venue for this concert, the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, was forced to close for emergency repairs.

The works, either individually or as a complete set, are among the most recorded and played musical compositions. Because of their immediacy and their harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and contrapuntal brilliance, they have become favorites for adaptation and are given in many wide-ranging musical styles and by many ensembles. Having experienced many of these, there is still nothing like hearing them in their original forms and orchestrations, played by great musicians in person. As wonderful as some of the concerti grossi of Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Corelli are, the six Brandenburgs are unique in their uniqueness. Each has its own instrumentation and special voice and personality that can never be mistaken for anything else, whether by Bach or any other composer who used these common Baroque forms.

There are no historical indicators as to the order of these concerti, so the one chosen for this concert was most likely driven by personnel scheduling. The First Concerto, in F, started off the evening. It is the only one that employs horns (two) and a bassoon, and this concerto is probably the most unlike the others in both form and instrumentation. The guest horn players were Andrew McAfee, Principal Horn of the North Carolina Symphony, and Kimberly Van Pelt, also with the NCS. With a trio of oboes, this created a unique triple against duple battle that at times elicited a slightly disjointed feeling. Of course, this is just one aspect of Bach’s genius as he creates rhythmic freshness from seemingly simple parts. For this concerto, section work took precedence over soloists and the tight ensemble playing was immediately evident.

The Third Concerto, in G, is for strings in groups of three along with harpsichord. The interesting aspect of this work is the alternating ensemble vs. “soloist” sections although there are no featured soloists as in the later concerti. The second “movement” is actually only a two-chord cadence leading into a brilliant fugal finale played on this occasion with great skill and vigor.

Toiling in the background, both physically and musically, is the harpsichord continuo player. In the Fifth Concerto, in D, Elaine Funaro got her chance to step out front for one of the most famous displays of virtuoso harpsichord writing. Playing in the background requires no less skill or endurance, of course, but the harpsichord cadenza near the end of the first movement is a tour de force that Funaro executed with great ease and flair. After the harpsichord fireworks, the second movement calms down with a beautifully pastoral violin/flute duo, sensitively played by Hsiao-mei Ku, violin, and Anna Ludwig Wilson, flute.

The Fourth Concerto is similar in instrumentation to the Fifth except there are two flutes. The standout performer was Eric Pritchard, first violinist of the Ciompi Quartet. This concerto was on the original Well-Tempered Synthesizer recording by Walter/Wendy Carlos, and I recall thinking that no human being could ever play it that fast and clean. Pritchard shattered that illusion with a remarkably deft, precise, and carefree rendition of his solo part. Fellow Duke Department of Music faculty member Rebecca Troxler joined in as the other flute soloist and added great warmth and expression to the mix.

There are only a few works in all of music where violists get to be the top line and don’t have to compete with those pesky violinists. The Sixth Brandenburg Concerto is one of these, and this performance, to me, was the highlight of the evening. Violist Jonathan Bagg (of the Ciompi Quartet) was joined by UNCG faculty member Scott Rawls and a trio of cellos plus bass and continuo. The first movement is a remarkable duo for the two violists in canonic form an eighth note apart. There seemed to be a heightened level of execution and abandon in the performance of this concerto, and the last movement defined the word “swinging.”

There is a piece called “Trumpeter’s Lullaby” which the Durham Symphony is playing on their next concert. A subtitle for Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto may well be “Trumpeter’s Nightmare,” but that certainly did not apply to this performance. Although not flawless, James Ketch, Chair of the UNC Department of Music, gave an outstanding reading of this devilishly difficult part for piccolo trumpet. Even as you hear them, it doesn’t seem possible for notes that high to be produced by humans. Often overlooked amid the high-altitude trumpet playing is the second movement, where the trumpet sits out (literally, in this performance) while the flute, oboe, violin, and continuo engage in what is one of the greatest moments in all of Bach’s output.

An added bonus to this already special event was the inclusion of copies of a twelve-page paper on the concerti, written by former Chair of Music at Duke (currently CVNC ‘s Vice Chair) Alexander Silbiger for a performance by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1983.

Congratulations and thanks to the Mallarmé Chamber Players for twenty years of outstanding performances and service to the community. We look forward to the ensemble’s continued innovative programming.