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An afternoon of pleasures, presented by the Mallarmé Chamber Players, began with Kurt Weill's marvelously evocative "Youkali Tango," a song about a fantasy place of hopes and dreams, of folly and forgetfulness, and the hazy mysteries of life. Ellen Ciompi sang with the knowing of a seasoned cabaret singer; Glenn Mehrbach, at the piano, wove the wistful net in which the song nestled; Robbie Link played a sad and longing cello line; while Fred Jacobowitz added a clarinet melody that hinted at mystic wisdom. It was quintessentially cabaret and was a captivating performance that established the bent this afternoon of pleasure would take.
The next selection introduced the work of the other early 20th century songwriter featured on the program, Alec Wilder. I see It Now, one of a large collection of ballads he contributed to Sinatra's list of hits, demonstrated his ability to create songs of coherent meaning through the marriage of poetic and musical elements. Especially memorable in this concert were the ethereal beauty of "Did You Ever Cross Over to Snedens?" and "Blackberry Winter," the first sung with cello and clarinet and the second, with piano. Ciompi's fine-tuned soprano vocal interpretation infuses songs like this with real and honest emotion. She can belt it out with incredible power as well as deliver an intense whisper that melts the heart.
Another unforgettable selection was a medley of songs dealing with seasons of the year: "In the Spring of the Year" and "The Winter of My Discontent" from Wilder and "September Song" by Weill. That last one worked its magic on my memory of other times, other places, as such a song is known to do. Then the first half of the concert ended with the dramatic "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera. Ciompi gave it a powerful and moving rendition.
Kurt Weill, born in Germany in 1900, the son of a cantor, was largely self-trained as a musician. In the tumultuous years after the end of WW I, he began writing songs in earnest. In 1927 he joined with Bertolt Brecht, and the partnership produced numerous striking works, the most famous of which was The Threepenny Opera. In 1933 he left Germany and wound up in New York by 1935, where he contributed much to the shaping of Broadway, working with such writers as Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, and Langston Hughes.
Alec Wilder was born in Rochester, NY, in 1907, and though he studied with some of the composers who taught at the Eastman School, he mostly developed his own skills and style. In addition to his songs, he wrote eleven operas and chamber music for numerous combinations of instruments, most of it employing classical forms and elements, but infused with jazz rhythms and harmonies.
Neither of these two composers is easy to categorize and both of them had a unique voice in American music.
In the second half of the concert we heard Wilder's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano performed by Jacobowitz and Mehrbach. It is a four-movement piece, the form and melodic material fitting quite comfortably in the classical format. I thought I felt the influence of Bach in the first movement. The inner two movements, marked Andante and Grazioso, were flowing and well-developed melodies. The outer movements, Allegro moderato and Allegro con fuoco, were more dazzling opportunities for the soloist to display his technical virtuosity. The harmonies throughout were rich jazz à la Gershwin. Jacobowitz and Mehrbach enthralled the audience as they communicated their pleasure in performing this interesting piece.
The sonata was followed by Wilder's "A Child Is Born," performed in jazz style with solo riffs by each of the instrumentalists: Jacobowitz's ride was a delight, and he was clearly at home in this format; Mehrbach tickled the ivories with jazzy verve; and Link rode up and down his stand-up bass with swinging energy. I found myself wishing they each would have gone on longer with the improvisations. Ah, but it was a fine pleasure as it was!
Our cabaret lady declared Weill's ballad: "It Never Was You" as her favorite and proceeded to take unquestionable possession of it in a performance that was as moving as it was persuasive.
The afternoon of pleasures was topped off with a piece of cake and a glass of champagne provided by the Mallarmé Chamber Players to help them celebrate the first concert in their 30th season of providing rich and varied music for the pleasure of audiences in the Triangle. Here's to another 30!
The series continues with concerts on October 5 and 12. For details, see our calendar.