Music by three exceptional composers formed the program for the Mallarmé Chamber Players‘ summer concert in the Duke Gardens’ Kirby Horton Hall. That the place was jam-packed, with a few late-comers seated on the patio (in the shade, but still in the prevailing heat), listening through an open door, spoke of the excellence of the offerings, the four performing artists, and Duke Performances‘ early-evening music series, which offers relief of the cultural kind from al fresco band and orchestral concerts here and there.

Anna Ludwig Wilson, retiring Artistic Director of the Mallarméistas, offered brief remarks on T.J. Anderson’s 1993 commission that supplemented the fine program notes, and Anthony Kelley spoke about his 20-year-old score. Music by Undine Smith Moore rounded out the bill of fare. The performers were flutist Debra Reuter-Pivetta, Principal of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, clarinetist Nicholas Lewis, Bass Clarinet of the Richmond Symphony and Principal Clarinet of the Williamsburg (VA) Symphonia, cellist Bonnie Thron, Principal of the NC Symphony, and pianist Thomas Warburton, long-time UNC pianist and accompanist, recently retired from academe but (thank heavens!) not from playing.

“Sonata Song” for Clarinet and Piano by Kelley (b.1965) seemed atypically lyrical and poignant till one realized it is a composition that dates from the master’s youth. Lewis and Warburton played it with loving attention and care, in the process revealing the score’s numerous inner beauties. The clarinetist’s breath control was astounding, whole long phrases often seeming to have been done on one gulp of air. The music sounds traditional and perhaps vaguely familiar but one would be hard-pressed to peg even its nationality, never mind any specific influences. It’s mostly sedate, too, although as realized on this occasion the quasi-improvised clarinet cadenza seemed drenched in emotion.

Thomas Jefferson Anderson (b.1928) retired to the Triangle from a distinguished career at Tufts, where his influence began; many are the composers and performers, too, who have been inspired by the kindness and personal generosity of the man universally known as T.J. — and of course by his music, too. “Spirit Songs” was composed for Yo Yo Ma in 1993 but remained unperformed until the MCP premiered it in 2004. Then as now, the pianist was Thomas Warburton; on this occasion, the cellist was Bonnie Thron, who has perhaps played more chamber music than orchestral gigs. In any event, she’s a great prize, and she played the daylights out of this sometimes knotty piece, splendidly partnered throughout by the evening’s keyboardist. The work is in three multi-part sections that permit extensive dialogue, not always of the most congenial kind. It’s sort of like dealing with an extended family, religious or otherwise, in which conversations sometimes become argumentative. Its many beauties, including a lovely spiritual of the composer’s own invention and some jazzy and soul-stirring gospel-like bits, too, offset the occasional growls, however, and the often-soaring melodies dominate the proceedings. The response was as warm as the evening’s atmosphere, and the artists and T.J. himself enjoyed several rounds of applause and bows.

The finale was a lovely little four-movement but multi-themed score for flute, cello, and piano by Undine Smith Moore (1904-89) called Afro-American Suite. It is a skillfully-wrought assemblage of five fine spirituals that are beautifully re-voiced for the trio. The work brought to mind the many comparably wonderful suites and collections of miniatures for chamber musicians and small ensembles by this composer’s near-contemporary, William Grant Still. It was a treat to hear the Afro-American Suite as played by these fine artists, and it was even more of a treat to hear it in the context of the evening’s other offerings. (Moore taught briefly in Goldsboro.)

It’s a pleasure to report that the works given on this concert plus William Banfield’s “Soul Gone Home” are being recorded this week by the Mallarmé Chamber Players for release next year by Videmus. (For the record, Banfield was in attendance at this garden concert.)

The classical portion of Duke’s Summer Music series continues next Wednesday, June 18, with a performance by the Ciompi Quartet with guest violist and composer Max Raimi. See our festival listing for details.

As it happened, the MCP announced earlier in the day the appointment of Ms. Wilson’s replacement as A.D., effective June 30. Suzanne Rousso, formerly Director of Education for the NC Symphony, has most recently been the Portland (ME) Symphony’s Director of Operations and Education. She’s not the first Maine transplant who’s decided those winters are just a tad too much! We welcome her home to NC!