Basketball games, organ recitals, and as perfect an early spring day as you can wish for were the competition for another eclectic presentation by the Mallarmé Chamber Players. For newcomers to this area or those who are reading from afar, Mallarmé is a chamber music organization with a large and prestigious stable of musicians that presents a rich array of diverse programs. Today’s concert was no exception as the relatively small audience at Duke University’s Nelson Music Room was treated to several premieres and a 20th-century masterpiece.

Each of the works on this program has quite a story to tell, but they all approach it from different perspectives: culturally, religiously, and musically. The first work came to us from Turkey and was listed as a U.S. premiere, although clarinetist Fred Jacobowitz admitted that that assertion was based on the fact that he found the score in a second-hand store and that its public virginity is an assumption. Joining Jacobowitz was violinist Eric Pritchard for Soylesi, a dialogue for violin and clarinet by Ekrem Zeki Un. Composers are often unjustifiably fearful of brevity, but this work is a lovely display of eight short movements. Filled with middle-eastern modality, it combines that heritage with Western-style counterpoint in a fascinating melding of musical cultures. Both players executed these mostly light-hearted excursions with a great sense of lightness and good-humor plus, of course, their usual excellent technical expertise.

Composer Paul Schoenfield is well established as a leading voice of contemporary composers who do not consider the label of “accessible music”as slander to their profession. His works are performed all over the world, and he has a special relationship with local groups like the Ciompi Quartet, as they have presented several world premieres of his compositions. The limited works for the combination of flute, cello and piano increased by one as we had another premiere of a Schoenfield chamber work. Joining forces for Three Bagatelles was pianist Jane Hawkins, cellist Bonnie Thron, and flutist Kate Steinbeck. Each bagatelle – the non-musical definition is “something of little value or importance” – has its own distinct character. They progress from a somewhat “new-agey” ballad to a blues-tinged slow movement, ending up in a moto perpetuo knuckle-buster that approached controlled chaos.

With all due respect to the two previous composers and their compositions, it is a sure bet that nearly everyone in attendance was primarily drawn to this concert for a complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written and first performed in the brutal cold, deprivation and atrocities of a German concentration camp in January, 1941, this intensely spiritual work reaches into your soul as no other. Composed for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, it is in eight movements that only rarely employ all four players at once. There is so much – from musical, religious and mystical viewpoints – that it would, and has, taken up books on these ideas. What begins as a typical Messiaen-like allusion to birdsong – as much of his organ music does – leads to brilliant, almost jazz-like unison passages for all four instruments. Fully owning up to my bias for the cello, the most moving and meditative moment is the fifth section, subtitled “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.” Described as infinitely slow, this is not only a mystical experience, but a textbook on bow control and tone production. Cellist Thron was masterful in sustaining the mood and purity of infinitiness.

Others got the chance to do the same as violinist Pritchard ended the work with a similar, but shorter movement while clarinetist Jacobowitz was all by his lonesome in the 3rd movement alternating between barely audible slow tones and abrupt attacks of bird calls. Pianist Hawkins was captivating as she brought forth harmonies from the piano that somehow simultaneously elicited simplicity yet all the complexity of creation. This composition is all about time – its permutations, limits, endlessness and extremes. This performance said it all without having to say a word.

Note: For a Letter to the Editor concerning this review, click here.