The Mallarmé Chamber Players expected to give up the proverbial ghost at the end of this season, but a reprieve in the form of a cash infusion has saved the day, enabled the organization to hire an executive director, and given the most eclectic performing group in the Triangle a new lease on life. It may have been just coincidence, but there seemed to be some new spring in the steps of the managers and the artists, too, as the MCP's second concert of the season got underway in Duke's Nelson Music Room on the afternoon of November 5.
The program itself was atypical, but then again, most offerings of the Mallarmeistias defy pigeonholing. This one was basically a new-music recital (à la Encounters...with the Music of Our Time) with a time-honored albeit forward-looking chamber music work tacked on for good measure. The "recitalists" were the distinguished violist of the Ciompi Quartet, Jonathan Bagg, and pianist and scholar Donald Berman, visiting Durham from Tufts and other points north. Both artists may be best known for their work in the musical mainstream although they are as well passionate advocates for contemporary works, too — as the program repeatedly demonstrated.
Things got underway with a revival of Arthur Levering's "Tesserae," written for and premiered by Bagg (and Jane Hawkins) several years ago. It is a complex, challenging and somewhat murky work that breaks some new compositional ground and certainly merits being re-visited. Pianist Berman entered into the score's busy-ness with evident passion, and Bagg threw himself into the viola part. Together they made a fine case for the piece.
Toru Takemitsu's "A Bird came down the Walk" is an extraordinary bit of tone painting in miniature that is closely wedded to the Emily Dickinson poem that inspired it. The program notes included the text, and Bagg read the words prior to the performance. This little piece overflows with color and nature, along the way exuding more than a little poignancy, and the two artists give it their all.
Composer Stephen Jaffe is on a roll, having recently been notified of yet another major award* to add to his growing collection of honors. He was on hand in the Nelson Music Room for the premiere of his Four Pieces quasi Sonata, written for and dedicated to Bagg. The new work seems to break new ground in terms of its technical demands, all of which were handily met by the executants — and also in terms of its somewhat populist appeal, particularly in the jaunty, fun-filled finale. The substantial opening movement covers a great deal of ground, drawing listeners into a richly hued sound world. There is wonderful energy in the dialogue-filled second movement, and the third section has compelling flow. The finale inspired comments not often associated with Jaffe's compositions, including the single word, "cool." There were along the way some strange and unusual sounds from the piano, its innards, and from the viola, too, but as a whole the piece has immediate appeal and functions admirably as a concise unit. Look — and listen — for a repeat!
After the intermission, Berman essayed four splendid Ives pieces for solo piano, the first of which ("Impressions of the 'St Gaudens' in Boston Common") is familiar as the opening movement of the (orchestral) masterwork, Three Places in New England. What made this quite extraordinary, however, was the direct line from Ives to John Kirkpatrick to his student Berman, who completed the edition of short piano works begun by his teacher and mentor. As a result, while listening to "St Gaudens" and the other three studies (Nos. 2, 19, and 23) that made up the group, it was possible to think we were hearing Ives himself — but of course Berman has far better pianistic chops than the old man possessed!
The concert's grand finale looked — on paper — somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the program, but in fact Robert Schumann's Fairy Tales (Märchenerzählungen), Op. 132, were wildly ahead of their time. That they seem solidly Romantic now is probably a result of their popularity and the exposure superior artists have long given them. On this occasion, we were richly blessed to have clarinetist Arturo Ciompi join Bagg and Berman for a reading that brought high levels of insight to the score. Mallarmé's long-standing tagline has been "Music among Friends" and that was certainly exemplified by this splendid performance.
*On November 28 in Steinway Hall, NYC, the Musicians Club of New York will present the 2004 Koussevitzky International Recording Award (KIRA) to Jaffe for his Violin Concerto, premiered by Nicholas Kitchen and the Greensboro Symphony and recorded commercially last year by Bridge.