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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 3, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 14
Pacific MusicWorks' 'An American Tune' presented a lively concert of our own early music
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Pacific MusicWorks' 'An American Tune' presented a lively concert of our own early music

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

PACIFIC MUSICWORKS
'AN AMERICAN TUNE'
ILLSLEY BALL NORDSTROM
RECITAL HALL
March 21


American folk music is not the first thing you think of when you hear the term 'early music.' Seattle's early music scene - which is one of the liveliest in the nation - is usually focused on the medieval, Renaissance and baroque classical traditions. Not only do Seattle audiences support such wonderful series and groups such as the Early Music Guild, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, The Tudor Choir, and Pacific MusicWorks, but Seattle audiences are treated to an annual Baroque puppet opera at the Northwest Puppet Center, and students come from all over the country and the world to study in the early music programs at Cornish and the University of Washington. We think of lutes, harpsichords, and viola da gambas when we think of early music - not banjos, fiddles, mandolins and cowboys.

But American folk music is what Grammy award-winner Stephen Stubbs brought to his delighted audiences in 'An American Tune' - a concert of banjos, mandolin, fiddles, guitars and a strong soprano voice singing everything from 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' to 'Nelly Bly' to 'Dixie.' What Director Stubbs and his band of special musicians showed us is that American music has an early period of its own that encompasses all the influences of Europe and many African influences as well. The concert was beautifully designed in song sequences focused vocally on the music of Stephen Foster, the era of Abraham Lincoln, Westward Expansion and Murder Ballads, with two instrumental sets demonstrating the Scottish and Irish Celtic strain in fiddle playing as preserved in the Appalachian musical tradition. The entire audience at Nordstrom Recital hall was tapping their feet and clapping along, bursting into song when invited.

The concert featured a special group of musicians gathered for this unique concert - world-class performers in their own rights - including Stephen Stubbs himself, setting aside his lute and theorbo for a good old American guitar in order to accompany his Pacific MusicWorks colleague Tekla Cunningham on the violin. These two star regulars, however, were the back-up players on this occasion for Brandon Vance on the fiddle, Tom Berghan on his four banjos, and John Reischman on mandolin. My companion for the concert (who is also my banjo-playing, folksong-singing husband) told me that Vance, Berghan, and Reischman are very, very famous in the world of old time music. He was as impressed to see them in person as I would be if, say, Juan Diego Flórez, Jonas Kaufmann and Renee Fleming appeared together at the opera. This combo of regulars and guests - including soprano Catherine Webster who carried the entire vocal repertoire of seventeen songs on her own - gave the audience a carefully constructed tour of early American music that left plenty of room for improvisational playing. As Stubbs said in a pre-concert conversation with UW Professor Larry Starr, 'everything that makes music interesting is not what is on the page - the score doesn't give you the character of the music.' Instead, he said it is the improvisational quality of the vernacular tradition that makes the music exciting and alive - the repetitions, ornaments, transposition, variations - that conjure up music of the past while still making it exciting to listeners 150 years later.

It was appropriate to begin the concert with Stephen Foster, whose songs have entered the American psyche so thoroughly that it's hard to believe anyone actually wrote 'A few more days for to tote the weary load' or 'Hard times, hard times, come again no more.' All of the songs by Foster and his contemporaries in this program were written between 1849 and 1873, so we got a musical dose of American history during its most dramatic period of the Civil War and westward expansion. The concert was too short to give a full sense of the complexity of the times, but certain choices seemed to break through the distance of time and bring sudden insight, such as 'Come, come ye saints,' a beautiful Mormon hymn that reminds us that American pioneers weren't only 49ers, cattle drivers or homesteaders on the Oregon Trail, but whole communities of people seeking religious freedom just as the pilgrims sought it two hundred years earlier.

One of my favorite moments was the group's presentation of 'The Battle Cry of Freedom,' sung by Catherine Webster in the slow, sad mode of a victory that demanded an almost unimaginable cost. We know that it was the rousing marching song of the North - 'The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!' - probably sung with martial vigor and enthusiasm back in 1860. But the elegiac tone of this rendition reminded us that not only were more boys killed in the Civil War than in all of America's wars together, but that the long after-effects of slavery are still working themselves out in communities all over the country.

Another more cheerful favorite was 'Cumberland Gap,' a song my husband wooed me with, though they left out the part about 'I got drunk an took a little nap, woke up sober in the Cumberland Gap.' Catherine Webster sang this song with particular energy to such lively playing that the auditorium disappeared and I felt as though we were all in a bar together stomping our feet and pounding the table. My only wish is that the whole burden of singing had not fallen on one soprano voice, though Webster did a wonderful job. The music is so various, and the accompaniment was so rich and complex, that the addition of a baritone for some of the songs would have made a wonderful evening absolutely perfect.

The musician of the night - which is saying a lot when all the musicians were so memorable - was fiddler Brandon Vance, a two-time U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion, whose dashing tunesmanship was accented by the rhythmic device of bouncing the bow vertically on the strings in addition to playing rapidly forward on the horizontal - an effect that seemed to create circles and swoops in the air, giving the music a visual dimension to go with the dramatic aural dimension.

The other musician of the night, with his rack of four banjos and one guitar, was Tom Berghan whose expert playing evoked the distant past when the ringing banjo was the sound of an era. Berghan has even developed a special instrument - the banjo d'amore - that has four sympathetic strings to amplify the four weakest active strings on the banjo. This beautiful instrument, with a headpiece in the shape of Orpheus and the whole legend of Orpheus and Euridice inset in mother of pearl along the neck, seemed to link American folk music to the early music tradition that is the normal bailiwick of Pacific MusicWorks. It's not by accident that an award-winning early music group should produce a great old time music concert. Though early American song is a century or two younger than that of Europe, Pacific MusicWorks has demonstrated that it offers a compelling counterpoint to what we think of as early music. The vernacular American tradition is our own early music - rich, complex, but especially alive in its direct connection of the audience to its own history.

The next project of Pacific MusicWorks is an early musical take on Mozart's The Magic Flute - and if it is as intriguing as their take on American folk music, or as beautifully produced as last year's Semele, then it is not to be missed. May 8-20, 2015 at UW's Meany Theater.

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