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Present Music's American Cornucopia

To call Sunday’s performance by Present Music a “concert,” would do it a disservice. But that’s true of all Present Music events, which reach beyond the idea of a series of musical works. This event at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist was called “Multitude,” and it was no less than a profound and expansive reflection on the American experience.

It begins, as tradition has it, with a Native American welcome performed by The Bucks Singing and Drumming Group. And the music with ancient roots was followed by an ancient question, “The Unanswered Question,” in fact, by Charles Ives.

To add to the music’s power, Stalheim separated the small ensemble through the cathedral—strings at one end, winds in the center, and a lone trumpet—the instrument that poses “the eternal question of existence” with its repeated five-note figure—high up in the choir loft.

How to answer this “eternal question”? With “multitudes” of course, which is exactly how Ives and Walt Whitman—the other American visionary who figured prominently in the concert—did so in their music and poetry. (There is no one answer to a question so vast, but everyone responds with the details of their lives.) First, a Whitman poem. Then, the “Alcott” movement of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, a tribute to domestic life that is filled with quotations from both classical and popular tunes. Played by Timothy Andres, the sound reverberated through the wide space of the cathedral, giving it a haunting, faraway sound. More Whitman poetry, an excerpt from Song of Myself  that offered a snapshot of American life—workers in their labors.

From there, Stalheim presented his own “Ives Mash Up.” Leslie Fitzwater beautifully sang Ives’ song, “The Things Our Fathers Loved (and the greatest of these was Liberty).” But instead of singing it through, Fitzwater was interrupted several times by snippets of songs and tunes from Ives’ early 20th-century world—a violinist dug in to “Turkey in the Straw,” singers from the Milwaukee Choral Artists and the Vocal Arts Academy sang a refrain of “Gather at the River,” a clarinet asked us to come on and hear “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” In the end—in typical Ives fashion—they all blended together in a glorious cacophony.

The concert ended with a brand new “list”—literally--the world premiere of Andres’s “Comfort Food,” a kind of post-modern “My Favorite Things.” Andres started the project by asking friends and performers to list personal “comforts” in their lives, and worked with a “found poem” of terms ranging from “Nutella” to “my mother’s meatloaf” to “a good chair.” Sharon Hansen conducted the Choral Artists and Present Music ensemble, capturing the piece’s relaxed structure and sudden bursts of color.

Uncle Walt Whitman would have been proud. 

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