This spring, D.C. is alive with the sound of American music

VOICE OF AMERICA: Patricia Racette will sing Saturday in a free Kennedy Center showcase.
VOICE OF AMERICA: Patricia Racette will sing Saturday in a free Kennedy Center showcase.
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

It's a great thing to celebrate American vocal music. But in the classical music world, there's an unspoken subtext that some vocal music is clearly better than others.

This is not to knock the concept of the American art song. It would be unseemly to knock it -- there's so much of it going on. This spring, the Vocal Arts Society, Washington's bastion of the art song recital, has taken up the torch of American song and organized an entire festival celebrating America's vocal tradition.

"America Sings in the Nation's Capital 2010," which began in February and runs through June, isn't a festival in the normal sense. The VAS has simply brought together, under one umbrella, every classical event in Washington offering some form of American vocal music, whether it's the musical "The Light in the Piazza" at Arena Stage or a concert of Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Beveridge by the New Dominion Chorale -- 135 performances by more than 25 organizations. One highlight is a free showcase event, featuring the soprano Patricia Racette and a number of area choruses, Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

But just what does the VAS mean by "American vocal music"? Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Ladies" makes the cut. Patti LuPone, at Strathmore, doesn't. The classical music world seems unsure exactly what the American tradition is that it wants to preserve. On the one hand, the American song set furnishes local color, naturalism or humor at the end of a recital. It's almost a cliche to see young singers visibly relax at the end of their program when they finally get to songs in their own language and idiom. Charles Ives and William Bolcom are frequently heard, although often represented by the same few songs: Ives's cowboy ballad "Charlie Rutledge" and Bolcom's delightfully sinister "Black Max" are practically staples.

On the other hand, classical singers such as Thomas Hampson have honed an exalted definition of the significance of American song. "An exploration of song in America invites one into the psyche of the New World as do few other disciplines," Hampson wrote in 2004, at the start of his "Song of America" project. But his approach also reflects a particular strain of American classical music orthodoxy: We need to defend our art music against Europe's, and many of our national composers have been unfairly eclipsed and deserve reviving.

But this concept doesn't address the reality that song in America is thriving. It's just not the "right kind" of song. Art music composers in this country were long encouraged to draw on the American vernacular: Witness Henry Burleigh's advocacy of spirituals or Charles Wakefield Cadman's use of Native American themes in the opera "Shanewis," which premiered at the Met in 1918. Today, though, the vernacular finds little place in the concert hall. For the most part, America's most distinctive and enduring vocal traditions -- spirituals, show tunes, Simon and Garfunkel -- are not included in the American art song tradition beyond serving, occasionally, as encores. Presumably, they're seen as too lowbrow.

Some vernaculars are more acceptable than others: The older the style, the more appropriate it is. We've come far enough to embrace Stephen Foster, the popular 19th-century tunesmith ("The Old Folks at Home"), but not far enough to embrace Bob Dylan. In 2000, the composer John Corigliano set seven of Dylan's lyrics to his own music, a strange form of performance art appropriation that seemed to imply Dylan's words could be elevated with the addition of the right kind of music. (I like a lot of Corigliano's music, but his version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" doesn't cut it.)

The "America Sings" festival seeks to be comprehensive, but it's also orthodox. It doesn't include the events on Strathmore's "Great American Song" series: Patti LuPone and Manhattan Transfer. That series, and others like it (including Lincoln Center's "Great American Songbook" series in New York), are having to wrestle with their own definitions of "American song." What happens when you've done most of Broadway's greatest hits? The New York Festival of Song, which comes regularly to Wolf Trap, is rare in stepping over arbitrary boundaries and insisting that all songs are created equal; it may offer a concert of German Lieder one month and turn the next month to Kander and Ebb or Duke Ellington.

This separation is one reason, I think, that the American art song tradition seems to need defending. Promoting it should be a no-brainer: Both singers and audiences have a more direct and natural relationship to their own language. Indeed, the prevalence of song from other countries on recital stages only underlines the "otherness" of the experience -- so that even aficionados might tell you the point of a recital is just to let the music wash over you without caring too much about the words. Here's the reason that song recitals need special promoting these days: They've come a long way, but they're still not, for a lot of audiences, a natural or easy activity.

It would be wonderful to see a festival that truly celebrates all of the manifestations of American song, and that includes folk and rock and country along with the show tunes, traditional folk songs, spirituals and art songs, to represent the amazing cornucopia of music this country has produced. In the meantime, the "America Sings" festival does a service by casting its net wide enough to demonstrate the ubiquity of American song on programs all over the city, showing how much it is already a part of the fabric even of our Eurocentric classical music programming. Perhaps it's a step toward gaining more respect for American vocal music and helping it embrace its true identity.

America Sings in the Nation's Capital

For a listing of events relating to the festival, see the calendar at The Festival Showcase, with Patricia Racette, the New Dominion Chorale and other groups, takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Admission is free.

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