MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Where the Weeping Willows Wave

Wonderful program over the weekend from Pacific MusicWorks: “An American Tune,” which was aimed at recapturing the sound of vernacular American music — through songs and instrumental pieces — from the nineteenth century.

The program was beautifully curated and beautifully, at times movingly, executed. For this occasion Stephen Stubbs exchanged his lute for a couple guitars. The recent Grammy Award-winner and artistic director of PMW conceived the program for a chamber-size group of colleagues. Stubbs was joined by Tom Berghan on banjo (Berghan was a lute duet partner from Stubbs’ early days in Seattle), mandolinist John Reischman of the Jaybirds, violinists Tekla Cunningham and Brandon Vance, and soprano Catherine (Cassie) Webster.

As a model, Stubbs decided to apply the ideas and practical skills of the “historically informed performance practice” movement, to which he’s devoted his career, to the wealth of musical traditions that were hybridized and became popular in America of the nineteenth century: the American of the expanding frontier, of the Civil War, of the parlor and the fairground.

Stubbs remarks that the skills of the early music movement evolved “to cope with filling in the blanks where notational records were incomplete and the aural traditions broken or hopelessly confused” — ergo, he realized, these skills “were the very ones that had a chance of penetrating the original spirit and sound of the vast panorama of ‘lost’ American music.”

And vast it is. For this program, instead of looking to European institutional models like the orchestra or other fixed ensembles — which many “classical” American music programs attempt to do — the idea was to focus on the following areas: the popular song model established by Stephen Foster, a gathering of songs associated with the Lincoln years, music of the frontier from the era of westward expansion, and American folk song in the specific form of the murder ballad subgenre. These sets were interspersed with instrumental numbers exemplifying the American folk fiddling tradition characteristic of Appalachia.

Stubbs et al. performed to a capacity audience in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya (while the second program of the Sibelius Festival, acoustically secure and sealed off, was at the same time booming under Thomas Dausgaard’s baton in the big hall below). In place of the sentimental tinge of nostalgia that a familiar tune like “My Old Kentucky Home” usually evokes, it was intriguing to hear this in the context of lesser-known vocals and instrumentals. Webster’s soulful phrasing and timbre made it easy to fill out a throughline connecting singing styles of the era and popular idioms today. The quintet of plucked and bowed strings added a wealth of colors and expressive nuances.

Notoriously, Foster also wrote for black-face minstrel shows, represented here by the songs “Nelly Bly” and “Angelina Baker.” “This … unsettling phenomenon,” notes Stubbs “…was too pervasive to ignore. To take only the positive side into account, it was a vehicle for the influence of African music, dance, and instruments (particularly the banjo) to put down widespread and permanent roots in our musical culture.”

Richard Millburn’s “Listen to the Mockingbird,” we learned, was held in high regard by Lincoln. It’s a wistful song of a beloved who has died young: the mockingbird sings over her grave, is “still singing where the weeping willows wave.” The synergy between the ensemble and Webster reached fever pitch in the lengthy cowboy song “The Buffalo Skinners.” They also gave a haunting account of the murder ballad “Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain” (a tune which left its mark on Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song”).

In preparing the four-part setting for violins and guitar of the Mormon hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “with the banjo taking an ornamental approach to the melody,” Stubbs writes that they experienced an “aha moment”:

The connection to the early seventeenth century sound of the English “broken consort” was immediate and unmistakable. In the earlier context, plucked and bowed strings provide the harmonic framework while the solo lute decorates the melody — this is the earliest form of specifically orchestrated music in the European tradition, and here it is again in a hymn from Utah!

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American music, early music, review, Stephen Stubbs

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