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Chamber Music Review

Langston Hughes in Music

November 3, 2002 - Durham, NC:

Say what you will about the Mallarmé Chamber Players, you've got to hand it to 'em when it comes to innovative programming that never takes on the aura of circuses or the stigma of what some call "crossover" events. Already this year they have teamed up with a youth tap dance ensemble and encored their wonderful season opener from last year, an Indian music program (at the ArtCenter), and for the group's second regular subscription concert, presented on November 3 in the Durham Arts Council's PSI Theatre, they brought us February in November. How so, you may be thinking? Well, the program centered on settings of poetry by Langston Hughes, of Harlem Renaissance fame, and involved some of the leading composers of this and previous generations. On the African-American side were the Granddaddy of Them All, William Grant Still, plus the great arranger of spirituals, H.T. Burleigh, plus one of our most innovative women composers, Undine Smith Moore. There was to be a new work by T.J. Anderson, too, but at the last minute it was decided to defer that till next season. Supplementing these works were songs to Hughes texts by John Musto and Ricky Ian Gordon (both are New Yorkers) and a marvelous spiritual-based score by WFUs' Dan Locklair that was commissioned by the MCP several years ago. It might have been Black History Month, but it wasn't....

The guest artist was Waltye Rasulala, the outstanding Westminster-trained soprano whose late husband was a leading American actor. Time has been exceedingly kind to her voice, and it's a fact that there are few singers in our midst (or, for that matter, beyond our region) who could have delivered the selections on this program as convincingly as she did. She opened with an aria (Celeste's) from Still's earth-breaking Troubled Island , the first opera by a person of color presented by a major American company. Hughes wrote the book. Burleigh's "Lovely Dark and Lonely One," an art song, came next, followed by Musto's "Litany" and two by Gordon - "Genius Child" and "Joy." The first four are dark and moody pieces that sat well for the singer. Here and later, too, the pianist was UNC's Thomas Warburton, whose playing seemed totally in sync with Rasulala's interpretations.

The short first half ended with Moore's charming "Afro-American Suite," a four-movement trio for flute, cello and piano, played by the MCP's Artistic Director, Anna Ludwig Wilson, NCCU's outstanding cellist, Timothy Holley, and Warburton. It is based on spirituals, sometimes sparsely and at times starkly treated. Only occasionally do all three voices sing together.

Departing from the printed program Rasulala and Warburton returned after a short break to sing Margaret Bond's setting of "Dream Variation" (in lieu of Gordon's), followed by "Kid in the Park," "Troubled Woman," "My People," and "Daybreak in Alabama," which at several points suggested Weill's "Alabama Song," in Mahagonny . The last four are by Gordon, who has set a slew of Hughes poetry to tremendous effect. As in the opening group, these were mostly somber songs, but the finale was again upbeat.

Hughes scholar Stephanie Freeman, of NCCU, who had provided the insightful (and extremely well-attended) pre-concert lecture on the poet and playwright, did a dramatic recitation of "Harlem" ("What happens to a dream deferred") but omitted four other poems that were included in the printed program. That program was a fine product, although the notes, surely compiled from diverse sources, were not credited. The Hughes texts were sensibly arrayed to avoid page turns during the songs, and the bios were helpful adjuncts to understanding, although there were no concessions on the house lights, so their usefulness may have been largely after-the-fact. The poems are, generally, profoundly moving, so having them as keepsakes is an added plus. In truth, Rasulala's diction was so good the words were hardly needed, and - again - Warburton proved to be an ideal partner for her.

The concert ended with another admirable piece by Dan Locklair, one that the MCP premiered and has recorded (the CD is still available) and has played in numerous settings. Locklair continues to write compelling scores that are invariably accessible to audiences. As readers of our news column know, his Symphony No. 1 was recently premiered in Louisville, and of course he is the author of a "Composer's Notebook," based on his service as composer-in-residence at Brevard this summer. (Click here for that article, which now resides in our 2002 Feature Archives.)

"Dream Steps" is in five sections, the last of which echoes portions of the first, and it, too, was inspired by Hughes, in this case, that master's "Lenox Avenue Mural," of which the aforementioned "Harlem" is the first part. The players were Wilson, violist Scott Rawls, and harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett, who came down from her home in Blowing Rock for this concert. Incidentally, Wilson is the flutist and Bartlett is the harpist on the MCP's Capstone CD of the piece (CPS8368), where they perform with violist Jonathan Bagg (of the Ciompi Quartet).

There are, frankly, not all that many programs we'd go out of our way to hear again. This is one of them. And that's a good thing, because this time we have an opportunity to revisit some of the music. There's a runout at First Presbyterian Church on November 17, at 5:00 p.m., where several of the vocal and other works given here will be repeated by these same artists. See our calendar for details.