UNC-Chapel Hill is having some probs with sports nowadays, but just after the scandal-plagued football team’s loss – to Virginia Tech – the Music Department took a big step toward redeeming the University’s reputation with an all-modern music program in Memorial Hall. The program’s oldest piece – Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth), Op. 13, premiered 99 years ago – provided a serene beginning for an evening that was otherwise in large measure a series of political works with music – or, if you prefer, a series of musical works with political messages.

The Carolina Choir, UNC’s big choral ensemble, was joined by the smaller, even more highly polished UNC Chamber Singers for this striking, four-strophe affirmation (from the years before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand) that peace can prevail if only… Susan Klebanow conducted. The singers were on risers about as far back on the stage as they could get, but this had the advantage of maximizing the positive acoustical effects of the shell that forms the back, sides, and ceiling of the stage, so the vocalists’ precise diction, balance, blend, and dynamics were quite admirably conveyed into the hall. This is user-friendly Schoenberg, too, as Schoenberg goes, so it may have come as a revelation to some members of the audience; the composer has been dead for nearly 60 years but his name still serves as an immediate turn-off for many mainstream music lovers. Still, the piece represented the first part of the evening’s program tile – “Hopes, Dreams, Realities (Revisited).”

The stage was then re-set for the first of the evening’s (nominal) premieres. (The qualification stems from the fact that a preliminary rehearsal of part of this program some weeks ago was open to the public.) Composer Allen Anderson has been on UNC’s faculty for 14 years. His music tends to run in the sort of academic vein mined by many tenured professors over the past 50 years or so. It’s sometimes music that demands equally of its performers and its listeners. This new piece – actually the first and last parts of a proposed five-section work dealing with the Trail of Tears, with texts by (or adapted from) James Mooney and Diane Glancy – seems to depict the bleakness of the Cherokees’ plight as they were driven from their lands. The composer notes that ‘[t]here are no references to Cherokee music” and states that “these are [his] musical impressions of the events.” The score is dedicated to the ensemble that performed it – the UNC New Music Ensemble – and to its director, fellow composer Stephen Litwin. The performing forces heard on this occasion consisted of five vocalists plus two flutes, two clarinets, two horns, and string quintet. Understandably, perhaps, this is bleak and often arid musical fare that, to this listener, depicted in large measure the psychological impact of the painful forced relocation on the victims thereof – material that might well do better as a soundtrack for a documentary. The performances seemed committed and polished – baritone Sean Currlin was a standout – and the music, which lasted a little over 25 minutes, was politely received.

Following the intermission, pianist Mayron Tsong performed Litwin’s 2003 composition “Thoreau’s Nightmare” (“for one pianist on two pianos”). One of the two pianos was a straight, unadulterated Steinway grand; the other, set at a 90-degree angle to the first, to facilitate the player’s moving from one to the other, was a “prepared” Steinway, filled in with various hardware (unspecified in the composer’s program note) that turned it into a percussion orchestra that commented on or echoed, in ghostly style, pronouncements first uttered by the unfettered instrument. It’s Ivesian, in a way, containing a few recognizable fragments of the “Thoreau” section of the Concord Sonata, but it seems also to have been driven by Litwin’s reflections on the then-pending war in Iraq, and the composer hints that the nightmare of the title may be either the Bush administration or the ongoing issues with which we wrestle.

Seeing Tsong in action was worth the price of admission. She’s a remarkable artist, one whose commitment to new music has long been manifest. That she’s leaving UNC for the University of Maryland at the end of this term is our loss and the Terrapins’ gain. (For a review of her last area recital, click here.) This performance garnered considerable applause, perhaps as much for the performer as the work itself. For sure, it was a tour de force on both counts.

The grand finale was the (nominal) world premiere of T.J. Anderson’s musical tribute to President Obama. On the surface, this might appear to be an “equal time” programming juxtaposition. The tribute was conceived, written, and composed in the joyous post-election period, before strife and disillusionment began to set in. Perhaps there’s something to the notion that both works on the second half cast political leaders in (retrospectively) unfavorable light.

In Front of My Eyes: An Obama Celebration is an eight part celebration of our president’s life and the hope many citizens share for his long-term success. Poems by Robert Pinsky, our former national poet laureate, are augmented by spirituals that here rest well together (unlike, for example, a comparable mixture in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time). The piece surveys highlights from Obama’s life – childhood, time in Indonesia and Hawaii, revelations, a political world-view, and all-encompassing spirituality. There’s much to admire here; there’s much for folks with other perspectives to decry.

The music is remarkably effective in merging spirituals with modern art music. At the core of the piece is the singer, and it was composed with the evening’s performer, Louise Toppin, in mind; indeed, this marked the distinguished soprano’s official debut at UNC since it is her first big appearance in Chapel Hill since relocating from East Carolina University. She’s a remarkable communicative artist with virtually flawless diction and a big, expressive voice, capable of subtle nuances. Aside from a few occasions when the UNC New Music Ensemble (keyboards, winds, brass, two strings, and percussion) got carried away, Toppin’s delivery of the texts was exemplary and often deeply moving. There were some departures from the printed text, perhaps stemming from last minute changes in the interest of greater clarity. Litwin conducted, making it even more of a stellar evening for him. There was enthusiastic response from the audience, many members of which rose to their feet in appreciation of Toppin, Litwin, and the composer. In Front of My Eyes is a work we can hope will be heard again. It’s not uniformly easy going or consistently accessible, but on first hearing it is clearly a score that will merit revisiting and perhaps reassessing, too, as our national music – and politics, too – continue to evolve.

Because T.J. Anderson’s music can be decidedly spiky, it stood in perhaps surprising contrast to the two other 21st century works given on the program. Allen Anderson’s piece seems the most dated of the lot – it’s the sort of thing once highly praised in academic circles, during the time that “academic music,” for want of a better term, was driving audiences away from concert halls, rather than encouraging them to rush in. Litwin’s 2003 score, too, verges on the experimental – with a dose of noisy “gee, whiz” – and thus has some intellectual appeal but, I suspect, little staying power over the long haul. When one considers what Tsong must have invested in preparing it, you’ve got to wonder if her time might have been better spent mastering something else – something that would stand more of a chance of repeat performances.

And when all is said and done, consider this – here was a very well attended modern music program in UNC’s most hallowed performance hall, and that’s worth cheering, regardless of how you felt about the works themselves.