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The chamber series À la carte states in its promo materials, "At an À la carte concert, anything is possible," and "Tired of same-old, same-old concert going? Hungry for something different?" That was certainly true in Friday night's performance at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: about half of the announced program was jettisoned because of illness that prevented several musicians from performing. But the result was certainly worth hearing—from the traditional repertoire to compositions recently written.
Opening the evening was Chansons de Bilitis by Claude Debussy (France, 1862-1918) on poetry by Pierre Louÿs (France, 1870-1925) in an arrangement made by one of the À la carte founding directors, Dr. Lance Hulme. The other founding director, mezzo-soprano Clara O'Brien, was the featured soloist. This was a colorful, luxurious arrangement: flute and alto flute (Carla Copeland-Burns), horn (Rachel Niketopoulos), harp (Melody Tzang), and three of the Ciompi String Quartet (Hsiao-Mei Ku, violin; Jonathan Bagg, viola; and Caroline Stinson, cello).
Debussy's music seems in perfect unity with these Symbolist poems which express pagan sensuality with stylistic perfection. The three poems that make up the cycle, "la flute de Pan" (The flute of Pan), "la chevelure" (The tresses of hair), and "le tombeau des Naiades" (The tomb of the Naiads), are set in languid music, perfect for evoking the sensuous nature of the dreamy poems.
The arrangement made use of each instrument's different colors, as individual lines came together occasionally to strengthen the dramatic thrust. O'Brien's lovely, rich mezzo voice seemed an ideal match for these seldom heard gems. Occasionally the ensemble covered the singer, especially in her lower register, but when the mezzo was in her mid and upper registers, the voice was radiant and clearly heard.
"Méditation" from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet (France, 1842-1912), a late addition to the concert, was not on the printed program. It is a piece known by all classical music enthusiasts, and this arrangements for violin, played by Ku, and harpist Tzang was a lovely addition. The ensemble between the two was spot on, and the distinct timbres of the two string instruments were wonderful.
Sidelines (Reflections on Two American Sports) was written for the Ciompi String Quartet by Anthony Kelley (b. 1965, United States) a faculty member (along with the quartet) at Duke University; he is also the North Carolina Symphony's composer-in-residence. Kelley explained that the impetus for the composition came when the Ciompi asked him to write something for them in the early 2000s. He had two older brothers, both of whom were "super star" athletes which brought about the two movements: "Basketball (variations on the Jump)" and "Baseball (A ragtime Fugue)." The structure of the piece is influenced by J.S. Bach's Preludes and Fugues.
The opening movement is something akin to Bach's Preludes (which Kelley thought matched basketball's "light and airy" nature). This is a bouncy and fun piece that contrasted with the more "orderliness of baseball" fugue. The Ciompi Quartet (now joined by violinist Eric Pritchard) was a delight. Various textures and rhythms brought the two movements alive. Especially noticeable in the second movement were the energetic pizzicatos from the cello and the somewhat fractured tunes from the other three strings. The audience obviously approved of this light-hearted jaunt.
Charles Ives (United States, 1874-1954) wrote many songs. O'Brien offered a somewhat obscure one, "Sunrise," written for voice, piano and violin. Hulme, who provided some comments about each piece through the course of the concert, explained the text is more about an "internal" sunrise.
The arpeggios and accompanying violin were solidly played by pianist Jim Douglass and Pritchard. Often the violin and voice are in unison, but the free structure of the piece was caught beautifully by all three musicians.
Hulme's original Slapdash Seule (meaning "slapdash alone") is the "original" concept that gave rise to several other Slapdash pieces penned by the composer. This virtuosic workout is for vibraphone, energetically and musically played by Erik Alexander. Utilizing four mallets, the percussionist easily negotiated the fast flourishes, which are interspersed with repeated patterns. The somewhat frenzied nature of the piece is a perfect definition of the title.
Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 by Johannes Brahms (Germany, 1833-1897) was a perfect foil to the dazzling Slapdash. This is a warm, rich composition, beloved by all. Douglass' gentle handling of the lyric lines and rich harmonies was a delight. He artistically brought out important inner lines, made prominent in repeated sections.
The evening concluded with another treasure, the slow movement from the "Death and the Maiden" string quartet by Franz Schubert (Austria, 1797-1828). The theme, based on the song by the composer with the same name, and the following variations are a model of the possibilities of embellishment. It seemed clear that the Ciompi had played the work many times, and they expertly led the audience through the five variations.
The straight-ahead presentation of the theme is then embellished, first by a lovely descant, gently presented by Pritchard with Ku and Bagg perfectly holding down the theme in triplets. Stinson's sturdy cello playing was front and center as she presented the original tune in the second variation. An energetic, rhythmically driven third variation follows. The fourth brings the sweetness of the major key to the work. The final variation closes the piece in a hushed tone.
The small but attentive crowd displayed their appreciation for the fine music making of everyone involved—quite a collection of disparate forces. This was certainly not your ordinary chamber concert.