Come to The Cookery: Mallarmé to present ‘Weill and Wilder Songbook’

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 03:05 PM

When people ask Ellen Ciompi about the cabaret style of singing, she gets two common responses: “’Oh, I love that movie,’ or they look at me like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were that kind of girl.’”

It is “a notoriously hard genre to define,” she said, but for her there are some crucial elements. A cabaret singer needs to choose songs that tell stories, and to present them in a way that involves the audience, because the singer wants listeners “to feel like it is their interpretation too,” Ciompi said. If she does not reach the listeners on some personal level, “then I haven’t done my job,” she said. The repertoire also is wide-ranging: Ciompi has sung music by Irving Berlin, Tom Waits and Paul Simon.
Sunday, she will perform the music of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and Alec Wilder (1907-1980) when Mallarmé Chamber Players begins its 30th season with a concert in the front room of The Cookery. In addition to Ciompi, other ensemble musicians will be Glenn Mehrbach on piano, Robbie Link on bass and cello, and Fred Jacobowitz on clarinet. Jacobowitz also will perform Wilder’s Clarinet Sonata. The concert, titled “Weill and Wilder Songbook,” will be presented in cabaret style, in a small performance space.
Weill and Wilder were composers who wrote for a wide variety of genres and ensembles. Weill, best known for “The Threepenny Opera,” wrote operas and musicals. Wilder wrote popular songs, as well as music for wind ensemble and jazz musicians. One convention of cabaret is that listeners do not get a printed program, Ciompi said. The singer sets up each song during the set. A few of the songs that the ensemble will perform Sunday are Weill’s “Youkali Tango” and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” and Wilder’s “A Child Is Born” and “Blackberry Winter.” (That list barely scratches the surface.)
Cabaret, which has roots in 19th century Paris, is historically performed in small spaces where listeners can get up close and hear the musicians. Ciompi and the ensemble rehearsed earlier this week in her Durham home, and gave a reporter a taste of that experience. The full group played Weill’s “Youkali Tango,” which Ciompi sings in French, with Link carrying the dance rhythm on cello. Wilder’s “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneeden’s?” is an arrangement for voice, cello and clarinet, with the instruments playing countermelodies to Ciompi’s vocals. On Weill’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” Jacobowitz played the ending in Dixieland style. (“That sounds great … we like raucous,” Ciompi said.) Mehrbach, who is both pianist and musical director for Ciompi,  helped the musicians work out tempos and subtleties of phrasing. Throughout, Ciompi draws listeners in with her presence, vocal delivery and humor – she is a true song stylist.
She and Mehrbach have been working together on cabaret and American songbook standards since 2002 and have performed extensively at local venues. For this concert, “we read through dozens and dozens of songs by both composers … to see how they would fit into a cohesive program,” she said. As a song writer, Weill is “so good at finding the emotional center for the song. It makes them a joy to sing. He’s done a lot of the work for you,” Ciompi said.
Ciompi, a native of New York, has lived in Durham since 1982. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music (her concentration was piano). By day, she is an RN in surgery at UNC Hospitals.
One of Mallarmé’s missions is to stretch the repertoire and the audience for the chamber ensemble. In October, Mallarmé will present a “String Jam” at Casbah, with violinist Jennifer Curtis, guitarist and song writer Dex Romweber and other musicians. “Chamber music is an ensemble playing without a conductor, and that takes many forms,” said Suzanne Rousso, artistic director of Mallarmé. She met Ciompi a year ago and was impressed with her wide-ranging repertoire. “This is going to be more of a show because of the way she structures it with the cabaret style,” Rousso said.
Sunday’s concert will be Mallarmé’s first in The Cookery, and will include an after-performance birthday cake and champagne. The space “seemed like a perfect venue for this performance,” Rousso said. “I think our audience is going to like the change of pace.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Mallarmé Chamber Players present the “Weill and Wilder Songbook”
WHEN: Sunday, 3 p.m.
WHERE: Front room of The Cookery, 1011 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham
ADMISSION: Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. For tickets, call 919-560-2788 or visit