Sunday afternoon, Present Music’s Thanksgiving concert began and ended as it always has, with stirring songs from the Bucks Native American Singing and Drumming Group. Three generations — maybe four — gathered around a big bass drum and patted, pounded, sang and wailed in a language and musical idiom mysterious and thrilling.
The program moved without pause to Thomas Larcher’s String Quartet #3/Madhares. A barely discernible scratching with a coin on a violin string made an eerie tremolando to open the piece. It advanced in free-floating episodes ranging from mad, atonal scrambles to placidly harmonized dirges before the coin-scraping returned to close it.
The Milwaukee Children’s Choir, led by Carol Storck, joined the string quartet in Srul Irving Glick’s Psalm 92. The children’s utterly sweet and impressively disciplined sound matched Glick’s easy 3/4 lilt and pastel harmonies. Later in the program, Storck and children tripped lightly through Glick’s equally charming but more complex Psalm 47, with its beguiling rhythmic play of three against four.
Kevin Stalheim, Present Music’s artistic director, led a small string orchestra in an intense reading of John Adams’ Shaker Loops (1978). This bracing music rushes at you in roiling torrents in the first and fourth movements. In the second and third, it flows in glassy, calm harmonics. The interest, beyond the considerable sonic excitement of it all, lies in hearing little motifs pile up and overlap in endless variety and then congeal and distill to just a few driving notes.
Karen Beaumont, as always at Thanksgiving, cranked up the cathedral’s powerful organ, this time for Jeanne Demessieux’s outrageous Repons pour le Temps de Paques. This essentially tonal “wrong-note” piece that lands on one raucous “mistake” after then next, to riotous effect. Rhythms and meters tend toward the grotesque, as well, with asymmetries that bump along like unbalanced tires. Fun.
Soon it was time for the annual Friendship Dance, with the Bucks drumming and dancers joining hands and making their circuit of the perimeter of the cathedral.
You’d think that the sharp contrast in styles and idioms would have daunted a holiday audience. But no; everyone seemed happy and engaged, and intense applause broke out at the end. Stalheim, over the years, has built a large, curious, tolerant audience that engages with the future of music. When you break the wishbone Thursday, wish for an America more like Present Music’s audience.