Critically-acclaimed saxophonist Branford Marsalis performed in a chamber music concert with members of the NC Symphony in Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College on Sunday, February 19. The program featured two works of Brazilian composer laureate Heitor Villa-Lobos and music by Adolf Busch and Johannes Brahms. It required the combined forces of the Peace College Chamber Singers, James Smith, director, Judith Bruno, soprano, Anita Burroughs-Price, harp, Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulas, horns, Anne Laney, flute, Michael Cyzewski, clarinet, Dovid Friedlander and Jeremy Prescott, violins, Paul Malcolm, viola, Bonnie Thron, cello, Donna Jolly, celesta, and Marsalis, alto saxophone.

The program was an interesting mixed menu, opening with Villa-Lobos’ Pòeme de l’Enfant et sa Mere, for soprano, flute, clarinet, and cello, which draws upon Brazilian folk sounds and the free tonality of 20th-century French and German music. The text, sung in Portuguese (an English translation was provided) describes the insatiable imagination of a child gazing at the stars in the night sky at bedtime; but the musical accompaniment sounds as if it is intended to personify the child’s insomniac imagination at work (“Oh! The sky has caught fire!”). It has a largely non-tonal harmonic palette, making the work difficult to hear with any sense of predictability or expectation – it certainly keeps the listener from growing bored! The night music from Béla Bartók’s suite for piano, Out of Doors, may have been paralleled at the close of the work (“Watch the bug on the roof… it sleeps….”). Despite the challenge of the non-tonal harmonic language, Laney, Cyzewski, and Thron provided a most interesting accompaniment to Judith Bruno’s imaginatively-rendered interpretation of that universal bedtime conversation between mom and child.

The Quintet for Strings and Saxophone of Adolf Busch followed the Pòeme. Adolf Busch was a violinist and founding member of the renowned Busch Trio in 1911 (later becoming the Busch Quartet). Busch studied at the Cologne Conservatoire, where his strongest musical influences were Beethoven, Brahms, and Max Reger. In the Quintet, the influence of Beethoven is apparent in the refined chamber music texture, the long and tensile melodic phrasing recalls Brahms, and the often-strange and unpredictable yet convincing shifts of harmony clearly recall Reger. (Unfortunately Reger’s name, works, and influence are missed by many because of our reluctance to listen to music of the Romantic organ tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – aside from César Franck, who died in 1890, and Brahms, whose only organ output dates from 1896.) The first of the work’s three movements is stamped with a Brahmsian identity to the extent that those who favor Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, might have sworn that a few measures here or there were lifted note for note. The middle movement also bears Brahmsian traits; a prior conversation with Marsalis revealed that the main melody of that movement is Brahms, taken from the Adagio second movement of the String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111 – but sped up to an Allegro vivo tempo marking. The final movement is a theme and variations wherein the theme is stated but not included as familiar material for the balance of the movement. The result of such a compositional plan is a free-flowing set of variations without the magnetic “attraction” of the theme as the main unifying musical element. Listeners who need a melody upon which to hang their “hats” might find this confusing – Busch appears to have absorbed Reger’s ideal of thematic statement and variation followed by disappearance quite satisfactorily! Notwithstanding this feature, the Quintet is pleasing to hear, for it is a complete work of chamber music “conversation” – all instruments are afforded equal opportunity to speak and to be heard without the spotlight of “feature” getting stuck on one member of the quintet for too long – or not enough. Most important is the fact that the saxophone timbre blended so well with the strings. (Marsalis also commented in the same aforementioned conversation that the strings would have to play louder than expected in rehearsal and performance, as his preferred plan of sound production would make louder dynamic playing a prerequisite.)

The second half of the program continued with Brahms’ Four Songs, Op. 17, for Women’s Chorus, Two Horns, and Harp. These date from 1857, a time that one Brahms biographer referred to as “self-communion” (selbstbesinnung) following the death of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann the year before. Brahms was working as court pianist, chamber musician, and Conductor of the Court Choir at Lippe-Detmold, and while there found time to begin to compose chamber music and works for pared-down forces. The opening song, “The harp resounds with wild refrain,” really does feature the harp – Brahms didn’t pull punches when an irresistible pun presented itself – in rapid 32nd note cascades. One of the horns also gives a “call” that resembles the introductory horn melody in the final movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68; it also has a most interesting contour – “sol-do-re-sol” – a melodic “concatenation” or chain of melody that shows up in some of his best-loved music. Both horns are featured in the second song, “Come away, come away, death” (from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), which has a light march feeling, even an “anti-dirge,” in spite of the somber spirit of the text. “Der Gärtner” featured well-balanced singing by the ladies, but “Song from Fingal” was the strongest work of the evening for the Peace College Women’s Chorus; the text and music strangely recall Schubert’s setting of “Death and the Maiden,” and the a cappella middle section is quite arresting. Caudill and Niketopoulas played most valiantly, and Burroughs-Price, whose harp figured prominently in the closing work, provided ample support for the ladies without any balance problems, which is nearly impossible with harp anyway.

The closing work, Villa-Lobos’ Quatuor for harp, celesta, flute, alto saxophone and women’s chorus, is a work (in three movements) that engages the listener on nearly all levels of familiarity and understanding. The opening movement (Allegro con moto) had a sound largely influenced by the composers known as Les Six. The Quatuor contains lush harmonies and numerous beautiful timbral combinations between all of the instruments in pairs. A brief section featuring the Afro-Cuban habañera also makes itself apparent amid all the lush sonorities. The biggest challenge of the work is found in the harp part, which consistently requires all ten fingers, a rarity (and oddity) in the harp repertoire; Burroughs-Price handled the challenge both gallantly and beautifully. The ladies of the chorus contributed considerably to the wonder of this work in the second and third movements, using monosyllables, glissandi, and flutter-tonguing effects – which appear in the score notated in exact rhythmic and melodic detail. As in the opening movement’s habañera quotation, there is also a jazzy Afro-Cuban melody, and rhythm exchanges take place between the instruments in this movement, which, alongside the choral entrances proved to be a quizzical yet attractive way to close an evening of chamber music.

This concert brought a full week of rehearsals and performances by Branford Marsalis and the NC Symphony to a most satisfactory conclusion. Having seen the Carolina Theater performance in Durham as well, it is my feeling that we are thrice blessed to have Marsalis living in Durham and dwelling among us: his artistry is multifariously audible and visible to us as a musician par excellence in two classical traditions – the jazz tradition that Dr. Billy Taylor calls “America’s Classical Music” and the Euro-American concert tradition. Like Branford (and Wynton as well), the New Orleans clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet also straddled both traditions for part of his career, gaining the adulation of Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet and playing jazz in Paris nightclubs. In sum, a great evening of music was made by great musicians who are assets to our collective artistic communities… “and a good time was had by all.