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One of Durham's more attractive venues is the converted church known as St. Joseph's Hall, located in the Hayti Heritage Center. It was in this acoustically splendid room, wherein all instrumental lines emerge with clarity and distinction, that the Mallarmé Chamber Players, the Bull City's eclectic and fluid ensemble of superior musicians, offered its penultimate concert of the 2010-11 season, a program titled "Mozart & More." The Mozart was the Quintet for Horn and Strings, K.407, a charming, technically demanding score that lasts about 17 minutes. Rachel Niketopoulos played a modern horn, giving an assured performance that was attractively integrated with the strings – violinist Eric Pritchard, violists Suzanne Rousso and Neil Leiter, and cellist Nathan Leyland. Niketopoulos is with the NC Symphony, Pritchard, with the Ciompi Quartet, and Rousso is the MCP's active and engaged Artistic Director. Leiter is a member of the Brussels Chamber Orchestra. Leyland is a distinguished freelance artist who seems to turn up almost everywhere, almost all the time. Despite their diverse affiliations, the quintet projected a splendidly unified reading of the familiar and heart-warming score. It was polished, assured, and confident, prompting satisfaction among the moderately-sized audience. Some of us must surely have wondered what this thing might have sounded like in Mozart's day, when there were no valves on the French horns to facilitate navigation!
There followed one of Ravel's most curious (and least often played) sonatas, the piece written in memory of Debussy for Violin and Cello. The players were Jeremy Preston, of the NC Symphony, and Nathan Leyand. These wonderful artists managed to minimize the music's inherent difficulties as the work's four movements unfolded with firm resolve and incisiveness. The crowd responded warmly and enthusiastically, and the artists looked pleased, too.
The grand finale – very grand, indeed – was Brahms' String Quintet No. 2, in G, Op. 111, not quite his last work but the work he thought might well have been his swan song. The artists were all the aforementioned players – Pritchard and Preston, Leiter and Rousso, and Leyland. There were so many felicitous moments during the performance it would be difficult to list them all, so let's simply say that everyone had more than a few opportunities to bask in the musical sun on this radiant day when (clearly) lots of folks who might otherwise have been in the well-air-conditioned room were instead outside basking in the actual sun.
One is always tempted to call late Brahms "autumnal" but there was a good bit of radiance here, and the quasi-Gypsy finale proved more of a stem-winder than some of us had remembered, sending the attendees away with bounce in their steps.
The program title remained a puzzlement, for it could just as well have been "Ravel & More" or "Brahms & More" or even "More Brahms than Mozart or Ravel" but in fact program annotator Florence Nash tied the Ravel to the Mozart with a quote from the French master, and if you think about it, Brahms' Op. 111 is a viola quintet (as opposed to a quintet for strings with two cellos) like all of Mozart's essays in this form.
Note: Mallarmé's season concludes with "Pernambuco!" on May Day; the concert features chamber music of the Amazon and more. And violist Neil Leiter returns this summer with the organization with which he is a part, the Brussels Chamber Orchestra. We'll have details in our calendar in due course.