“Songs at Evening,” the final program of Summerfest’s 26th season, gave a nostalgic view of Americana with modern voices casting back to folk and familiar tunes for inspiration, contextualized through a contemporary lens.
The chamber music series has presented work by American composers on each of their “American Roots” concerts, with three composers represented at Saturday night’s performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s White Recital Hall.
John Harbison’s 2004 “Songs America Loves to Sing” was the concert, and season, finale, with an impressive, stylish performance. The inventive treatments of popular sing-a-long songs featured re-harmonized and re-imagined melodies in masked, elusive forms, the arrangements capturing the sincerity and loose rhythms of the dedicated amateur.
The full ensemble sounded excellent and each musician committed to their solo lines, with Shannon Finney on flute (and later, piccolo) opening on a mournful, wavering “Amazing Grace,” the fluttering imagery in Jane Carl’s clarinet cadenza on “Poor Butterfly,” Anne-Marie Brown’s strong contours and jazz elements delivered on violin, and Maria Crosby giving a nice raw-edged spontaneity to her cello line.
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Dan Velicer, on piano, was often accompaniment and always effective, whether on block chords, stuttering accents, or rolling out the easy gospel of a simple Sunday service.
The other American pieces were Arthur Foote’s 1920 “At Dusk” and Robert Beaser’s 1985 “Mountain Songs.”
“At Dusk” was steeped in the Technicolor-esque timbres of the era, a solemn, verdant, shimmering work, well performed by Finney (flute), Crosby (cello) and Tabitha Reist Steiner (harp).
Finney also performed “Mountain Songs” with guitarist Brendan Bondurant. Five of the eight Appalachian-inspired movements were originally programmed, though they only performed three. While Finney emulated a freewheeling vocal quality on the solo part (and added a fine melancholy to her bent tones and echoing lines), Bondurant was unconvincing, caught in technical demands of the part.
Bondurant was also featured on Antonio Vivaldi’s Chamber Concerto in D major, originally for lute, with string quartet (violins: Brown and Mary Grant, viola: Duke Lee, cello: Crosby) and harpsichord (Charles Metz), though it seemed odd that the amplified solo part had the least presence of the ensemble.
The Vivaldi, in truth, seemed wedged on the program like a wrong sided puzzle piece, not programmatically cohesive and delivered with a brittle self-consciousness, though the second movement Largo had demure engagement.
While the variety on any given program lends itself to disjunction and mixed quality, the musicians’ devotion to presenting an eclectic range of eras, styles and instrumentation, typically performed at a high level, is one of the many admirable qualities of Summerfest.