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A happy marriage between Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, 21st Century Consort

21st Century Consort. (Aaron Clamage/For Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The 21st Century Consort’s collaboration with the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum is a happy marriage. The museum gets a distinguished concert series, and the Consort gets a fine hall and ready-made subjects to build programs around. Saturday’s concert (this season’s last) celebrated the museum’s “Modern American Realism” exhibit with a program of folk-inspired pieces by Shulamit Ran, Luciano Berio, Evan Chambers and Aaron Copland, and, if the link to American realism was a little tenuous, the program itself was terrific.

It opened with the sweet, plaintive lyricism of Ran’s “Perfect Storm,” a set of reflections for solo viola on Berio’s setting of the folk song “Black Is the Color,” in which a viola interlude introduces each verse. Berio’s setting (and the 10 others in his folk-song collection, scored for voice and seven instruments) followed, and violist Dan Foster strung out his lines in both with a quiet absorption that seemed to slow down the passage of time.

Soprano Lucy Shelton was the soloist in this set. Still the consummate musician, she uses her voice wisely, but at this point in her career it seems at its best when used very quietly. Berio’s instrumental accompaniments are delicate and transparent and the Consort played with generous consideration, but there were times when a broader dynamic range and a dollop of sensuousness would have been welcome.

Chambers explores a whole range of emotions in his setting of the Scottish folk song “No Winter, Wi’ His Cloudy Brow” — now hopeful, now dark, now humorous — but always lyrical. With the dependably vivid scene-setting of pianist Lisa Emenheiser’s accompaniment, Shelton sketched these moods dramatically (although with some strain on top) and with evident pleasure.

With artistic director Christopher Kendall conducting, the Consort, 14 strong, ended the program with a masterfully articulated account of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” that was as involving in the slow unfolding of its sunny daybreak as in the edge-of-the-seat-paced momentum of its dance interludes.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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