Faced with the challenge of devising a program of (loosely defined) contemporary music around the Smithsonian’s “The Civil War and American Art” exhibition, the 21st Century Consort’s artistic director, Christopher Kendall, weighed the romanticism of the exhibit’s 19th-century painters against the dark realism of its pioneering photographers and came up with . . . irony. Not exactly a middle road but, as it turned out, a scenic one.
He turned to colleagues William Brehm and Danny Pelfrey and asked them to “create a work merging music and images from the period of the Civil War.” The two, with experience in the field of TV and movies, came up with “Civil War: Images and Echoes” for eight instruments and projections, full of snippets of familiar tunes of the time couched in a sea of the sort-of-folksy, sort-of-Western harmonies that Copland tagged forever as “American.”
Kendall asked his University of Michigan colleague Stephen Rush to adapt Rush’s recently created opera, “U.S. Grant — A Fluxkit Opera,” to a piece for voice and piano, and Rush accommodated him with a set of eight familiar songs (“Goober Peas,” “Yankee Doodle,” etc.) to which texts from Grant’s autobiography and Gertrude Stein’s “Four in America” were randomly assigned. By design, the words and their accents don’t really fit the music, and they come out even in the end only by some judicious squeezing and sleight of hand. Baritone Gavriel Savit and pianist Lisa Emenheiser accomplished all this with wonderfully stylish panache and a large dollop of humor.
The rest of the program included a beautifully paced and voiced reading by Emenheiser of the Alcotts movement from Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata and a crisp, astringent performance of Stravinsky’s splendid “The Soldier’s Tale” (in its English version) with Martin Goldsmith as the Narrator, Robert Aubry Davis as the Devil, Savit (in a Union army cap) as the Soldier and Elizabeth Adkins as the enchanted Violin. No dancing in this performance, but a lot of very good music-making.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.