While many arts organizations wring their hands and bemoan dwindling and aging audiences, Mallarmé Chamber Players, since their founding, has consistently been as creative in their programming and presentations as the performing artists. This unique and sensitive appreciation of the musical and social needs of the community is rewarded with large audiences and a fanatic following. Today’s concert was a shining example as Mallarmé hosted a program called “Yin and Yang: East Meets West” which presented an amalgam of traditional indigenous Chinese music, as well as music by Chinese composers influenced by Western classical music.

Mallarmé also keeps their events fresh by realizing that concert venues play almost as big a part in the concert-going experience as the program and musicians, and today was no exception. Rigsbee Hall is a recently renovated space in downtown Durham that most people would never know existed. As in most flat-floor rooms, sight lines are a problem but the excellent sound, comfortable seats and pleasant ambience made up for that.

The featured non-western instrument was the guzheng. This is a plucked, hollow-body instrument between 4-5 feet long. It has movable bridges with a variable number of strings, usually between 15 and 25. It is placed on two stands and the player uses picks on the fingers. Tuned to a pentatonic scale, it produces a full and brilliant sound, resembling a combination of harp and the Japanese Koto. The guest guzheng player was Jennifer Chang who studied the instrument with Grand Masters in China and is now universally recognized as a master herself and in demand all over the world as teacher and performer of this ancient instrument. She performed four selections spread over both halves of the program. Ms. Chang has an astounding technique that includes right hand tremolos – like a classical guitarist, glissandi, wide vibrato and the ability to alter pitches by pressing down on the strings. As in any artistic cross-cultural experience, it is difficult for western ears upon first hearing to fully understand and evaluate this music. After all, someone hearing 19th century piano sonatas for the first time would probably say they all sound the same. The audience was enveloped in this wonderful and exotic music, and Ms. Chang’s mission was certainly accomplished: she piqued our interest in her instrument and its music.  

I’ll skip around a bit and get to the finale next – the U.S. premiere of the first string quartet of Ma Sicong, a composer deeply influenced by Western music, who fell victim to the Cultural Revolution that suppressed nearly all non-Chinese artistic endeavors. Although this work does contain snippets of Chinese folk songs and modes, without knowing the background it would easily be mistaken for just another large-scale late Romantic string quartet. At times it sounds like Dvorák, and the first movement is reminiscent of Brahms in its harmonic language and its inability to know when enough is enough. The adagio movement follows that pattern with an absolutely beautiful and evocative style that could have used some editing. There follows a Mendelssohn-like sprightly scherzo that showcased the excellent articulation and rhythmic vitality of the quartet. Hsiao-mei Ku, on loan from the Ciompi Quartet, and Carol Chung were the violinists joined by David Marschall, viola and Leonid Zilper, cello.

The gem in this concert was the closer of the first half – Three Bagatelles by Chen Yi. Written for violin and viola, this is a remarkable work that attains a rare and authentic synthesis of east and west and should become a staple in the slim repertory for this duo. The first bagatelle has a marvelously spiky ostinato figure by the viola interrupting a brilliantly conceived violin part that melds Chinese motives and modern effects. The second was even more spectacular as the viola played a repeated theme that can only be described as a mixture of Appalachian folk ballad and ancient eastern music. Ms. Chung and Mr. Marschall made the performance of this work one of those moments where you knew you just had to hear it again. The violin part over the long ostinato melody was partially improvised.

The Mallarmé Chamber Players do not restrict themselves to music, so it was not a total surprise that the program ended with a traditional Chinese New Year’s dance featuring members of Carolina Lion Dance. Plenty of time left to get to the kickoff of the Super Bowl.