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Utopia presents fabulous overview of early U.S. music

UTOPIA EARLY MUSIC, St. Mark's Cathedral, Feb. 7.

It's a risky proposition scheduling a concert on Super Bowl Sunday, but thanks to TiVo, DVRs and sundry other recording devices, there was a sizable audience in attendance in St. Mark's Cathedral at Sunday's Utopia Early Music concert.

The is Utopia's first season, and so far they've presented some diverse programs that haven't necessarily been confined to the repertoire one would normally expect from an early music ensemble.

Underscoring that tendency was Sunday's concert, which focused on American music from the colonial period through the early 1860s. It presented a fabulous overview, from the Bay Psalm Book, which is the earliest book printed in North America that is still in existence, to folk and fiddle music and including pieces by William Billings, the first American composer of any significance.

For this concert, Utopia co-founders Emily Nelson, soprano, and Chris LeCluyse, tenor, were joined by Catherine Coda, soprano; Nelson LeDuc, baritone; Bronwen Beecher, fiddle; and Nick Foster, guitar. These musicians, in various vocal/instrumental combinations, gave wonderful performances that captured the character and spirit of this music, most of which is unfortunately unknown to most people. Yet this music by these early composers is important to the development of a distinctly American style and fundamental to many later composers, not the least of whom is Charles Ives, whose American musical roots are at the core of his oeuvre.

The program opened with the vocal quartet singing a couple of songs by Billings. Self-taught as a composer, Billings wrote music with a rough-hewn attractiveness that is refreshingly free from European influences, as is most of the music from this period. But it's wonderful in its simplicity and directness, and the singers did a wonderful job with these, as with a few others by him that were interspersed throughout the program.

Each half of the concert also featured a set of folk and other songs. Among these were two with Utah ties: "All Is Well," sung by the vocal quartet, which was later developed into the LDS hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints," and "Sweet Betsy From Pike," sung by LeDuc and accompanied by Beecher and Foster, an old folk song with many different texts that was eventually written down in Provo in the 1950s.