Music Review: Da Capo Chamber Players at Merkin Concert Hall

February 3rd, 2013

In the program notes provided for the latest concert by the Da Capo Chamber Players at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday, Patricia Spencer, a flutist and the sole remaining member of the group’s original 1970 personnel, offered an unusually candid and personal essay to explain the evening’s offering.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The Da Capo Chamber Players The tenor Robert Mack performing Wendell Logan’s “Runagate, Runagate” with the pianist Blair McMillen at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday evening.

A sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics.

Titled “Honoring Black History,” the concert anticipated the traditional observance of Black History Month by a few days. But the real motivation for the event came from two books that Ms. Spencer read last year: “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson, formerly a reporter for The New York Times, details the struggles of black Americans as they moved northward during the Great Migration. “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, a lawyer and professor, concerns the erosion of civil rights among black citizens in the United States.

“Feeling quite helpless as a mere flute player,” Ms. Spencer wrote, “I decided that even a small step, a program honoring black history and featuring a few of the extraordinary black composers in our midst, might help raise awareness of this crisis.” Proceeds from the concert, she noted, would be donated to All of Us or None, an organization that provides legal and social support for current and former prisoners.

That black composers are poorly represented in mainstream concerts is a germane topic of discussion but one beyond the scope of a single concert review. What was important here was that, worthy sociopolitical aims aside, the program provided welcome exposure for works by four living composers and one recently deceased, collected by Ms. Spencer and Meighan Stoops, the Da Capo clarinetist.

No single compositional style or philosophical position held sway; instead the players offered a variety of configurations and perspectives throughout the evening. The pianist Blair McMillen opened with “African Sketches,” a trio of blithe, expressive and tuneful miniatures by Nkeiru Okoye, a Nigerian-American.

The distance between that work and “A Diffuse Light That Knows No Particular Hour,” composed for the players by Jeffrey Mumford, was striking. Like much of Mr. Mumford’s work this ruminative piece is at once atonal and fundamentally lyrical. The cellist James Wilson, frequently the center of gravity, offered robust, singing sounds among the cloud-light whorls of his colleagues.

“La Flora,” a sextet for winds, strings and percussion by Alvin Singleton, swelled from hushed three- and four-note motifs into a primordial dance of chaos and design. Valerie Coleman, a flutist in the quintet Imani Winds, provided skillfully wrought, buoyant music for flute, clarinet and piano in “Portraits of Langston,” a six-part suite incorporating five poems by Langston Hughes. Lanny Mitchell, who narrated, expertly expressed the poetry’s rhythms; Ms. Stoops played with a loose, impulsive verve that suggested improvisation.

The last work on the program was also the most impressive: “Runagate, Runagate,” by Wendell Logan, sets Robert Hayden’s flamboyant poem about a runaway slave to music of wild ferocity, sobriety, eeriness and mordant wit. Hearing it powerfully sung and shouted here by Robert Mack, a tenor, with fiery accompaniment conducted by Tania León, I could barely fathom how a work so sharply drawn and gripping could languish virtually unknown.

The Da Capo Chamber Players perform next on June 6 at Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street, Manhattan; (212) 501-3330, kaufman-center.org.

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