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Every music teacher aspires to work themselves out of a job. When a music student enters the professional world, the teacher often loses a pupil—but gains a collaborator. This is not a well-known or celebrated transition; it is one of the more secret joys of teaching music.
Thandolwethu Mamba and David Heid's program at Baldwin Auditorium was a prime example of how vibrant and enriching such a collaboration can be. Thando, as he is known by his friends, is from a small township in Eswatini. He began his formal training in Western classical musical notation, theory, and vocal technique after entering Duke as a prospective biology major. He credits growing up in the rich oral tradition of southern African choral singing with strengthening his ear and musical instincts. Heid began serving as Mamba's collaborative pianist and vocal coach during his first year at Duke, and their musical relationship has developed into something truly special. Mamba's return to Duke for this performance following earning his masters from the Frost School of Music was a warm homecoming—and poetic justice for COVID wrecking his senior recital plans.
The program formed a loosely organized, yet cohesive exploration of "travel and journey." Heid's concise and informative program notes introduced the musical context of the various songs and cycles and guided the audience through the thematic connections. Attendance was somewhat sparse, which was understandable as travel was still difficult following hurricane Ian. Nevertheless, many of those in attendance were enthusiastic supporters of either or both musicians and showed it with both their attentiveness and applause.
Mamba possesses an extraordinary capacity for timbral flexibility, and he exploits his ability with a level of artistic maturity and musical tact that belies his age. He is, in many ways, a baritone's baritone, with all the richness and weight of tone that implies. And yet, when the music calls for it, he evokes a wail, a shimmer, a howl, a grating harshness, a dancing lightness. It is this diverse spectrum of sound color that dominates Mamba's performances. Heid demonstrates a similar command of timbral flexibility on a notoriously inflexible instrument, in addition to his trademark sensitivity and virtuosity. The combination is irresistible, and particularly so in the song cycle that anchored the program: Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mamba previously performed this set as the winner of RSO's Rising Stars competition in very early March of 2020. He has put the intervening years to good use, and his increased mastery of his instrument as well as the incremental steps of time toward full vocal maturity made this performance more rich and subtle, as well as more intimate.
The Maher set, along with "Vagabond," from Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel, and a Ravel song cycle later in the program all were written for piano first and orchestrated after the fact. Many collaborative pianists take a very orchestral approach to these works, but Heid's interpretation was masterfully pianistic. Rather than try and imitate the timbre and phrasing as heard in the orchestrations, he took a more soloistic approach. One could argue that this is a somewhat controversial attitude, given the orchestration prowess of these three specific composers, but it was a gamble that absolutely paid off.
Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée showcased the range of expressive capacity of both members of the duo. The first chanson of the cycle is a romance, the second a prayer, and the third a drinking song. The shift from the final "Amen" of "Chanson épique" into the inebriation of the "Chanson à boire" was especially comic. Mamba shifted instantly from transcendental devotion to staggering around the stage while delivering the most wonderful operatic baritone "ha ha ha!" to delightful comedic effect.
Mamba's English diction does not currently feature quite the same level of sparkling clarity as his German, French, and Spanish, but the musical theater set (English, with one Spanish tune) was alternately touching and amusing nonetheless. The lighter songs were especially welcome after the soul-wrenching Mahler. It was disappointing to see that "Love Song," from Kurt Weil and Lerner's Love Life, was apparently cut from the program, but perhaps it will be included on a future performance. Mamba's larger than life physicality in "C'est Moi" from Camelot and "Where is the Life" from Kiss Me Kate elicited multiple laughs from the audience to provide a joyful end to the program.
Thando will be performing with the Opera Theater of St. Louis as a Gerdine Young Artist for the 2022 festival season. Locally, the duo is scheduled to repeat this program on Oct. 5th, 7 PM at Carol Woods in Chapel Hill, according to David Heid's website.