American Music Festival opens with Ives’s and Copland’s competing visions of America

November 4, 2013

The opening concert of a music festival is a statement of intent. It sets the tone, defines parameters and suggests avenues for exploration. The National Gallery’s 65th American Music Festival opened Sunday night with a fascinating program dedicated to Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. In its ambition and scope, the concert offered nothing less than two competing musical visions of America itself.

The evening featured the Maryland Sinfonietta, a student chamber orchestra from the University of Maryland, led by Michael Jacko. If musical standards and ensemble values were not always upheld, the ideas provoked by the programming were illuminating. The juxtaposition of Ives’s “Three Places in New England” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” offered a rich study in American mythmaking.

The landscapes of “Three Places,” built upon the fragmenting and layering of American folk songs, hymn tunes and ditties, are haunted by time and distorted by memory. The Sinfonietta evoked the dissonant fog of the Civil War in the “St. Gaudens” movement, but individual motifs struggled to find definition. “Putnam’s Camp,” with its boisterous and overlapping patriotic tunes, fared better, driven by the ensemble’s bright, propulsive energy.

Baritone Andrew McLaughlin provided the brooding vocal line for the final movement, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” whose memory of a summer’s walk in the Berkshires emerged as a fevered dream. Two lively songs by Ives, “Charlie Rutlage” and “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” reinforced the composer’s experimentation with the American vernacular.

“Appalachian Spring,” in its streamlined, sentimental concert version, offered an alternate vision of America: spare yet comforting in its melodies, nostalgic yet aspirational in its mythos. If the ensemble sounded tentative and lacked polish, there was consolation in the many moments of unaffected lyricism, not least of which were Elise Bond’s mellifluous clarinet solos. While not a majestic “Appalachian Spring,” this performance nonetheless offered simple gifts.

Chin is a freelance writer.

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