Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks presents “My Old Kentucky Home,” “I Wish I Was in Dixie” and other 19th-century songs using historically accurate instrumentation.
The music of Bach, Monteverdi and Handel is typical of the European fare comprising Pacific MusicWorks’ chamber orchestra programs.
This Saturday, March 21, however, the 19th-century composers behind PMW’s concert at Benaroya Hall are from the other side of the Atlantic: Stephen Foster (“My Old Kentucky Home”), Daniel Emmett (“I Wish I was In Dixie”) and Louis Moreau Gottshalk (“The Battle Cry of Freedom”), among others.
In “American Tune,” Pacific MusicWorks and its artistic director, Stephen Stubbs, are taking an early-music approach to the New World, in a program that scratches the surface of 19th-century songs and instrumentals in the age of Abraham Lincoln. It is, in part, the soundtrack of defining experiences in our history: a troubled republic; westward expansion; the flourishing of unique, regional identities across the land.
8 p.m. Saturday, March 21, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $10-$40 (206-215-4747 or pacificmusicworks.org).
“The subject of American music is just huge,” says Stubbs. “Trying to capture it all is like saying we’re going to represent European music in one concert. You can’t do it.”
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Stubbs says he discovered that some of his closest colleagues shared the thought that the same instinct for playing early European repertoire with rigorously researched authenticity could also lead to historically informed performances of American music.
“Nobody knows what 19th-century American music actually sounded like. There are all sorts of aspects to it. We can see the iconography: the minstrelsy, the banjo-playing, dancing. And we have the tunes. The fact is we in the early-music field are faced with a similar situation about various aspects of European music: iconographic information, written information, partial leftovers of the tunes.
“But then you really have to imagine what all that sounded like. The way we’ve done that with European music is largely through the instruments — playing on original instruments, or accurate copies. That gives you a way into a sound world. We can do the same thing here.”
Evoking a sound world for “American Tune” will involve Stubbs playing a 19th-century guitar (“of the sort brought over from Europe”). His old lute-duet partner, Tom Berghan, will bring his expertise on banjo. Baroque violinist Brandon Vance — who is also a champion Scottish fiddler — will reveal that side of his musical identity. Violin soloist and PMW orchestra director Tekla Cunningham and mandolinist John Reischman (leader of bluegrass ensemble the Jaybirds) will also participate, and soprano Catherine Webster will sing.
Best known for Baroque repertoire but also a member of a family steeped in country music, Webster encouraged Stubbs to consider Foster as a starting point for the concert.
“She said there are a few Stephen Foster songs meaningful to her, like ‘Hard Times,’ which is one that has become part of America’s culture,” says Stubbs. “Foster anchors us in a particular time frame in 19th-century America, and leads to connections with the Civil War, Lincoln and the unavoidable and shameful part of our history in terms of blackface minstrelsy. You can’t look away from that. It’s a big part of American music from that period.”
The Foster section of the program overlaps with songs tied to Lincoln and the Civil War, including his “We are Coming, Father Abraham,” Emmett’s “Dixie” and Septimus Winner and Richard Milburn’s “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (Lincoln’s favorite song).
Stubbs says one “can trace almost anything in this concert to European and African roots. American music is so many things coming together.”
The concert will be preceded by a conversation between Stubbs and UW professor Larry Starr.