"Music Among Friends" resumed on Sunday, September 25, at three o'clock at the Hayti Heritage Center as the Mallarmé Chamber Players presented the first of this season's series, titled "Five Concerts, Five Continents." In collaboration with the Hayti Heritage Center and sponsored by a NC Arts Council "Learning Audiences" grant – and the Thomas S. Kenan Foundation – this concert, called "Afro-Amigos," provided glimpses of the influence of African and Hispanic heritage in music-making. Still to come in the series are "Music on Main Street" in November, "How Do You Say Harmonica in Chinese?" in January, "Middle Eastern Delight" in March, and the annual gala concert and champagne reception in May. The audience for this concert was diverse, and all in attendance enjoyed a variety of music together in the pleasant setting of the Hayti Heritage Center.
The program began with a "Tuneful Welcome" by the Central Park Charter School After School Chorus, Brennetta Simpson, conductor. Twenty-four young children, some apparently pre-schoolers, sang, "Children learn what they live, children live what they learn," The audience, a good part of which consisted of parents, siblings, and friends of the children, was delighted. And indeed the children were delightful, mostly singing in full voice, conveying their words meaningfully, and just being beautiful children. Two boys who did solo parts were equally excellent, enunciating their parts clearly and rhythmically. Accompanist Cindy Hospedeles did a very fine job of supporting the young singers.
Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne's Haydn Tuyero-Chicharras-Galeones, for flute, oboe, and cello, received its US premiere, featuring Anna Ludwig Wilson, flute, Bo Newsome, English horn and Timothy Holley, cello. This was a fascinating excursion into the music that has touched the Caribbean shores of Argentina from the renaissance to the present. There were the central European influences, rhythmic African influences, Spanish, Portuguese and native influences, and more, all woven into an easy-to-enjoy piece. Desenne, quoted in the program notes, says, "Cultural interweavings seems to have chosen this wild territory to show how much diversity could spring from a handful of different seeds." A lot goes on in this piece, part of which is played under a pre-recorded high-pitch drone that provides an eerie sense of the composer's musical landscape. The primary element of the music was interplay – the three instrumental voices converse all at the same time, then one comes to the fore while the others pull back to hear the comments being made. The concentration and pleasure of the musicians in this performance communicated the pleasure of the music to the audience.
Next we heard Grist for the Mill, a 2005 composition by Anthony Kelley, a member of the music faculty at Duke University. The work was commissioned by longtime Mallarmé patron Eleanor Eisenmenker. Kelley found his inspiration in reading about the early corn mills and the exotic names for their various parts and workings – names that become the titles of the movements. Three completed movements were performed: "Wolf Gyrator," "Bran Shaker," and "Invincible Separator." (Another movement is still in the works.) Scored for flute, clarinet, cello, and percussion, including marimba, it was performed by Wilson, clarinetist Nicholas Lewis (who also did a neat vocalization in the "Bran Shaker" movement), Holley, and percussionist Thom Limbert. The piece is replete with complex and intimate rhythms demanding considerable musicianship from the artists. The words I jotted down in my program notes were "rollicking rhythms." Some of it was foot-tapping music, and some was so intellectually stimulating and delightful as to bring a smile to my face. I am not sure what grist Kelley put into this mill, but there was a good helping of jazz and a gracious deep bow to the blues along with elegant form and grace. I look forward to hearing the complete four-movement work.
After intermission, vocalist Rhonda Harrison joined Bradley Simmons, Nelson Delgado, Pako Santiago, and Limbert for what was billed as "Afro-Cuban Improvisations for vocalist and percussion ensemble featuring works from our joint heritage." They played "Afro Blue and Denko," the latter as recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Harrison belted out the songs like one of those African village choirs that sings full-voiced across the valley (or the plain) their songs of celebration or peace or greeting or farewell. The percussion was infused with primal rhythms, intricate and beguiling and speaking a message all its own in communication with the primal human spirit. They did one improvisation kicked off by Simmons. It was wild and wonderful in the same vein as above.
The Cumbia Dance Troupe did not make their scheduled appearance, but in their stead the musicians held an open-ended question and answer session that was informative and enlightening. A post-concert reception gave the audience further opportunity to talk with the musicians and each other. By the way, the finger foods and punch were pretty good, too.
The afternoon was casual and pleasurable. All in all it was reminiscent of what – in the '60s – was called a hootenanny, except the music wasn't folk music. Another word I associate with those days is "happening" – and that is perhaps a better description of this concert. I hope there will be more like this!