The diverse, mostly baroque program given on the afternoon of March 16 in the Durham Arts Council’s auditorium showed the Mallarmé Chamber Players at their very best, offering unusual fare of high quality interpreted by some of our finest local musicians. Founding members Anna Ludwig Wilson, flute, and soprano Penelope Jensen, outstanding in two intriguing song cycles, were joined by Richard Luby, playing a modernized violin, Stephanie Vial, playing a modernized cello, David Marshall, viola, Bo Newsome, oboe, and Elaine Funaro, who used a harpsichord built along the lines of an 18th-century instrument.

Early arrivers caught an unusually informative lecture-demonstration in which almost all the musicians spoke about how the “early music movement” had informed their use of modernized instruments. One of the string players quipped that the modern style is about sustaining sound while the baroque goal centered on releasing it. Both approaches were demonstrated with samples from the concert program. Vial said she based her approach to baroque music on the singing voice while Jensen said she tried to use her voice as an “instrument” in order to project.

Each half of the concert opened with a fairly typical baroque work. J.C. Bach’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 19, No. 2, for flute, violin, viola, and cello, played first, is a typical so-called trio sonata in which the violin and flute play independent lines, more often than not, while the cello and viola share the same material and function as the bass. The instruments had more independence in the second and third movements, and the slow movement abounded in unusual pairings.

Following intermission, instead of an unusual “Paris Quartet,” with four very equal parts, as printed in the program, the Quartet in D Minor from his Musique de table (1733) was given. Newsome explained that the original had been for bass recorder, two flutes, and continuo. With that flexibility that kept coins flowing to the composer, the choice of instruments in his works was deliberately left open to the available musicians. Vial took the virtuoso part meant for recorder while Ludwig played flute, Newsome realized the second flute part with the oboe, and the harpsichord filled out the bass; about two thirds of Funaro’s playing was improvised from the bare bass line. The variety of the instrumentation used by the artists – the blending and contrasting woodwinds, and the vigorous and often showy cello part – was welcome. At the reception, cellist Vial explained that she just played the notes written for the bass recorder without transposition or other editing.

No notes were in the program for Edwin McLean’s Sonata No. 1 for Harpsichord (1991), but Funaro explained that it is a winning work from the Aliénor Harpsichord Competition, of which she is now director. The contest’s goal is to encourage contemporary works for the harpsichord, and it has accumulated some 400 new scores, all of which are in the Duke Music Library. The first movement has the unusual designation “Brisé,” which Funaro later explained to me is an homage to the style of Couperin Le Grand – “mean(ing) ‘broken style,’ a French clavecin technique of expressive broken chords.” This movement contrasts a rhythmic figure with a more melodic one. “Promenade” features a lovely slow melody, while the concluding Toccata is fast and almost jazzy. The Sonata is a welcome addition to the repertory and well worth further hearings.

The main part of the program consisted of a pairing of two delightful song cycles. Before intermission, Penelope Jensen gave an enchanting performance of four Songs from the Shakespeare Plays by Thomas Arne(1710-1778). These were Ariel’s song from The Tempest (“Where the bee sucks there suck I”), two Dury Lane interpolations from Twelfth Night (“Tell me, where is fancy bred” and “Come away, Death”), and a song(“Under the Greenwood Tree”) from As You Like It . Arne took liberties with his texts. Jensen was accompanied by flute, violin, viola, and harpsichord, which were variously “affected” by the text, imitating theowl or flight in the first song, etc. The Six Elizabethan Songs (1957/1962) by Dominick Argento (b.1927), scored for soprano with flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord, shared one text, his “Dirge” being the same as “Come Away, Death.” The contrast between the two composers’ treatments was fascinating. Argento’s other texts were Thomas Nashe’s “Spring,” Samuel Daniel’s “Sleep,” Shakespeare’s “Winter” ( Twelfth Night ), Henry Constable’s “Diaphenia,” and Ben Jonson’s “Hymn.” Twentieth century scoring is reflected in the composer’s responses to poetic imagery. These two song cycles would be ideal candidates for the Mallarmé Chamber Players’ next CD.