Ashmont Hill chamber program an eclectic, spirited affair

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 24, 2011

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Walt Whitman once served warning to the “power, weapons, testimony’’ of America. “I will confront these shows of the day and night,’’ Whitman wrote, “I will see if I am not as majestic as they.’’ Whitman wasn’t on the program for Ashmont Hill Chamber Music’s sweepingly eclectic “Music, Poetry, and American Identity’’ concert on Sunday, but his spirit was in evidence: trying to pin down American identity by getting a little competitive with it.

The concert started by troubling the water, then playing in it. Jacob Druckman’s 1994 “Dark Wind’’ — in a crackling performance by violinist Nancy Bracken and cellist Brian Snow — sliced up traditional classical virtuoso tropes with modernist edge, a ruminative reckoning. Alec Wilder’s “Piece for Oboe and Improvisatory Percussion’’ was more casual in its stylistic confrontation: oboist Barbara LaFitte spun out easy syncopations while percussionist Doug Lippincott and poet Regie O’Hare Gibson bopped on Middle Eastern doumbecs, a triangulation between Hollywood-esque snake-charmer exoticism, cocktail jazz, and a counterculture drum circle.

For the evening’s featured composer, Ruth Crawford Seeger, the contested past could be personal. Her 1926 Sonata for violin and piano was a mix of up-to-date expressionism with old-fashioned somber gravity, dissonances woven into a heavy fabric. The performance, by Bracken and pianist Rachel Goodwin, was rich but rhythmically ponderous. Crawford Seeger later destroyed the Sonata’s manuscript, but a copy was discovered after her death.

Her 1932 “Three Songs’’ on poems by Carl Sandburg show the fruits of reinvention: sharper, leaner, confrontational in their atonality. Mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato’s interpretation was bright and oracular; LaFitte, Lippincott, and Goodwin provided gnomic, industrious accompaniment. Fortunato also offered a trio of folk-song settings by Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, reinventing heritage in their own images.

O’Hare Gibson prefaced Crawford Seeger’s songs by performing Sandburg’s poems in a word-jazz storytelling mode. Gibson’s own “Let’s Take It Back,’’ a collaboration with Lippincott, was a loose, funky, hip-hop-flavored creation story, playfully locating the origins of rhythm in that mythical golden age of unalienated, unmediated individuals — “before technology tamed the mind.’’

The rest of the program engagingly wrestled with dualities. Snow’s energetic rendition of two “Figments’’ by Elliott Carter seemed to collect the concert’s threads of pugnacious, eloquent self-assertion. The second, “Remembering Mr. Ives,’’ paid shadowboxing tribute with a series of punchy double-stops, answered by icy harmonics.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

ASHMONT HILL CHAMBER MUSIC Rachel Goodwin, artistic director

“Music, Poetry, and American Identity’’

At: Peabody Hall, All Saints Parish, Dorchester, Sunday