Mélomanie's mix of Steely Dan and Telemann, plus a Kile Smith world premiere

Composer Kile Smith, whose oboist daughter was a guest artist with the chamber group.
Composer Kile Smith, whose oboist daughter was a guest artist with the chamber group. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: January 17, 2012

WILMINGTON - The division between ancient and current music sometimes barely exists: Those involved with speculative resurrection of centuries-old sound need not work that much differently to bring new music into being.

So nobody should be surprised that the small, Wilmington-based chamber-music group Mélomanie had no audible problems mixing ultra-polite Telemann with Variations on a Theme by Steely Dan by Mark Hagerty, performed Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church here (repeated Sunday at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill).

The concert's big news was the world premiere of Kile Smith's The Nobility of Women, with guest artist Priscilla Smith (the composer's oboist daughter), written for a mixed-instrument sextet. The title was inspired by a dance manual. Individual movements used traditional dance forms such as "Allemande" and "Musette" as a springboard - a time-honored practice that has yielded works as diverse as Stravinsky's Agon and Respighi's popular Ancient Arts and Dances.

The first two movements were rather one-dimensional, perhaps going for an eloquent simplicity that didn't quite happen. When a big, interesting harpsichord flourish invaded the third movement, Smith was in top form and stayed there, working with the kind of musical layering that makes his choral works so entrancing. The "Sarabande" had an oboe solo full of eloquent, Italianate longing, while the final-movement "Ciaccona" was packed with individual star turns.

His piece also fit in neatly with Couperin's equally melodic, colorfully scored Quatorzieme Concert in D minor and especially the poised soulfulness of Boismortier's Suite in D minor, played with particular depth by the wonderful viola da gamba player Donna Fournier. Telemann's Quartet in G major from the Tafelmusik anthology was admirable enough, but utterly impersonal. Rarely does one get the slightest hint who Telemann was - one theory his music tends to have such expressive limitations.

The Steely Dan piece (quoting "Babylon Sisters" from the Gaucho album) is more a manifesto than a piece meant to stand on its own, functioning to show what's possible in some future scenario when a piece demands that harpsichords play modern rock rhythms. Through the course of the variations, other preexisting pieces were quoted, such as Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun - all fun, much like William Bolcom's early works, but without the satirical edge.

Mélomanie mostly had the entire program well in hand; even in less-stellar moments, the group had a basic solidity that told you any problems would only be momentary. Individuals switched off between baroque and modern instruments, seemingly with good instincts for what best served the piece at hand.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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