The circle of friends has widened in Durham, and Sunday’s Mallarmé Chamber Players concert at the Hayti Heritage Center was testimony that newly composed music can be better understood through performance and conversation. Introducing the concert, Anna Wilson invited the audience members to join a post-concert question and answer session with young composers Craig Walsh and Trevor Weston.

Including the works of living American (almost) composers, members of the ensemble performed an eclectic representation of contemporary art music. Beginning with British composer Betty Roe’s setting of Three Poems of Langston Hughes and closing with the world premiere of Trevor Weston’s “Life Goes” (2006), the concert featured guest artist, soprano Louise Toppin.

Bringing a gloriously rich, resonant sound to a hall that was made for her voice, Toppin’s captivating interpretation of Roe’s three short vignettes was quite wonderful — the perfect opening. Roe surely had a vocalist like Toppin in mind when she set this delicious vernacular penned by the Harlem Renaissance poet. Cellist Tim Holley performed the bluesy cello line with panache. Equally at home singing the contrasting style of Ned Rorem’s Five Poems of Walt Whitman (1957) for soprano and piano, Toppin demonstrated clarity through dynamic changes across nearly three octaves. Once considered “conservative,” Pulitzer Prize winner Rorem enjoys the status as a highly esteemed member of what Schwarts and Godfrey, writing in Music Since 1945: Issues, Materials, and Literature, says is the “vanguard of modern tonal writers.”  Pianist Inara Zandmane played the understated lines with equal sensitivity.

Toppin and the adaptable ensemble breathed life into Weston’s “Life Goes. Weston, who draws his inspiration from the great composers of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others), also pays tribute to American Blues writers and contemporary hip-hop. But there is nothing superficial about his writing; his explorations through musical styles derived from the text of Lewis Alexander’s haiku fit neatly together. And Toppin’s performance was nothing short of brilliant.

Two instrumental pieces, the premiere of Craig Walsh’s “Chaconnesque (2003) for clarinet, viola and piano and Adolphus Hailstork’s “As Falling Leaves(2002), filled out the program. Walsh, who returned as guest composer from his post at the University of Arizona, draws from his experience in the electronic studio. An intuitive tonal writer, Walsh constructs, through the iteration of short melodic motifs, an allusion to the works of Messiaen and others while looking back to 17th-century practice. And with keen interest with the inner life of sound (envelope, in electronic terms), Walsh is concerned with the quality, duration and pitch — meticulously creating vivid contrasts. Kelly Burke, clarinet, Scott Rawls, viola, and Zandmane realized the piece convincingly in a tight performance. Hailstork’s tone poem, a tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center, is emotionally wrenching despite the abstract media.  And for this writer it was impossible to dissociate the music from the event. Will it stand on its own? I’ll leave that for future audiences to decide.
The Mallarmé Chamber Players participating on this occasion were Joanna Sisk-Purvis and Debra Reuter-Pivetta, flutes; Burke; Rawls; Timothy Holley, cello; Zandmane; Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp; Jonathan Wacker, percussion, and Kevin Geraldi, conductor for the Weston piece.

Thanks to Anna Ludwig Wilson for cultivating an audience for new music. The Artistic Director of Mallarmé has worked tirelessly to bring us the best, from the newly-commissioned avant-garde to lesser-performed gems of the 20th century. We are the recipients of that gift.

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