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Most "classical" presenters warn you to turn off your cell phone before you've completely settled in your seat, but there's an eclectic outfit in Greensboro – À la carte is its name – that invites you to turn yours on. That's because all the essential information about its wildly diverse concerts is online – the program itself, texts, translations, artist photos, and more. So you can go right now to http://alcgreensboro.com/ and you won't really need me. But that would be a form of career suicide in an age of vanishing cultural journalism, wouldn't it? So perhaps you will read on? Please do!
This organization reminds one of the little engine that could – and did. It's like the Mallarmé Chamber Players in that group's early years, but with the added benefit of a resident composer – Lance Hulme – who serves as its co-director. Its performing artists represent the cream of the proverbial crop of musicians from the central part of our state. Its repertory is all over the map, in the most recent concert ranging from the 14th century to brand-new takes on what we used to call "third stream" fusions of jazz with the classics, to borrow Gunther Schuller's term.
On this occasion, performing for the first time in the conveniently accessible sanctuary of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, the ensemble consisted of mezzo-soprano Clara O'Brien (À la carte's other co-director), a string quartet consisting of Marjorie Bagley and fresh-caught DMA Wenyin Phoenix Deng, violins, Scott Rawls, viola (fresh from his triumphant Bartók performances with the GSO), and cellist Alexander Ezerman, plus flutist Erika Boysen, clarinetist Kelly Burke, pianist James Douglass, percussionist Erik Schmidt, and Samuel Taylor, lute and banjo. Special guests for the evening were NCCU-based saxophonist Brian Horton (wearing his new doctorate with ease and grace) and his jazz ensemble, consisting of Ernest Turner, piano, William Ledbetter, bass, and Jeremy Clemons, drums.
The concert got underway with a brief Rondeau by Purcell, so radiantly played one wished we'd heard all of the Abdelazar Suite – next time, maybe. There followed the first of O'Brien's four appearances, this one in Jacob Senleches' sad plaint, "En attendant, Esperance," effectively accompanied by viola and lute. Next was Hulme's own composition, "a red yes (Penelope)," from Odyssey Allusions (a bit of which may be heard here) – a sextet, actually, with fascinating interweaving of long melodic lines.
Chausson's famous "Chanson perpetuelle," fit admirably in context with the far newer composition, its extended lines beautifully sung by O'Brien; and rarely has the music seemed so intense, so direct, so penetrating as it did in this reduction for voice with string quartet and piano.
Brian Horton and his ensemble joined the program at this point for his own "Not Enough Sky," in which he and his group demonstrated superior chops that were significantly enhanced by contributions from the classical side in a very impressive piece we'd welcome the chance to hear again – this being of course just about the highest praise one can afford a new score!
This was in turn different enough for some in attendance that George Crumb's The Night of the Four Moons (1969, for alto, flute, banjo, electric cello, and percussion – including thumb piano) didn't sound all that strange, although it benefitted from Hulme's spoken introduction, and folks who'd heard other music by Crumb – Black Angels comes to mind – might have had an inkling of what to expect. The piece is a compelling, intensely dramatic setting of three poems by Federico García Lorca (involving a good bit of movement on and off the stage). For some of us, this was the highlight of the evening, although it served as a reminder that Crumb remains an acquired taste. That this performance was so enthusiastically received demonstrates that À la carte has earned its audience's confidence and respect. Well done!
The grand finale involved many of the artists – three sat out – in a Third-Stream takedown of Chick Corea's justly-celebrated "Spain" – see how nicely the program moved from Spanish poems to this festive tribute? The jazz ensemble here was the centerpiece of the extended number, and the classical side of the house again more than held its own against (or perhaps with is a better word) the visitors. There was happiness all 'round as the attendees demonstrated their enthusiastic approval.
This is a good thing for Greensboro, for the region, for the artists, for the ensemble's audience and its supporters. But these things don't grow on trees, and, as we're learning with regard to (non-profit) cultural journalism, we need to give to the groups we want to preserve. To contribute to helping À la carte as it moves into its 4th season, click here.