The September 15 “Encounters with the Music of our Time” concert, given in the Nelson Music Room on Duke’s East Campus, had been intended as a showcase of the broad variety of Latin American music. The grounding of all air traffic due to the previous Tuesday’s horrifying terrorist attacks kept two guest artists out of town. Featured Cuban-American composer Tania León was stuck in Dallas, where she was conducting a Bernstein opera. Guitarist Arthur Kampela was also stuck out of town. Composer Anthony Kelly organized the program and announced the improvised changes including three adventurous 20th century works chosen in memory of the fallen. In their memory, he asked that all applause be withheld after the performance of those works and the first regular work on the program.

The program opened with a performance of León’s Interlude and Scene 11 from her opera Scourge of Hyacinths. “Oh Yemanja” is a mother’s prayer to a goddess for the protection of her son. The interlude opened with bell-like chords and then rippling notes played by pianist Candace Bailey. Fred Raimi’s soulful cello entered next, followed by soprano Terry Rhodes, whose delivery of the text was more spoken than sung but not so unnerving as the Sprechstimme of Schoenberg. She had excellent diction in the English text, the setting of which had odd pitch sequences.

The first of the three improvised memorials came next. Raimi’s rich cello was eloquent in the sad Russian songs of the third movement of Benjamin Britten’s Third Solo Cello Suite. Mezzo-soprano Ellen Williams joined soprano Rhodes with composer Stephen Jaffe at the piano for two apt songs, “Blood Stains” and “Light Casualties,” from “Seven Fort Juniper Songs.” The first had a percussive piano part, and the broken line reflected the broken form of the text. The voices blended well in what was mostly a duet. The moving “Light Casualties” featured solo as well as some duet renderings that were most effective.

Before playing the last movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s last work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, violist Jonathan Bagg said that it expresses “clear-eyed melancholy.” Jane Hawkins played the spare piano part and Bagg brought out all the mournful qualities.

After intermission, soprano Rhodes and pianist Hawkins returned to the stage to perform “Five Aztec Poems” by Puerto Rican-American composer Roberto Sierra. “What is poetry?” featured some fine high notes. “Life goes on” required a wider vocal range. “Poem of the Conquest,” with its faster tempo and dramatic intensity, was particularly memorable. The piano part was beautifully lyric in “Friendship,” and the vocal line reflected the pastoral imagery. The last, “Ephemeral Joy,” had a dramatic and rhythmic drive and the text was along the lines of “eat, drink and be merry.” This concert featured some of the best vocalism that I have heard from soprano Rhodes. 

Tania León’s “A la par” (1986) featured Hawkins on the percussive piano part and guest percussionist Cameron Britt on a plethora of drums, rattles, chimes, marimba and a xylophone. The rhythmic complexities of the first third were too much for me to take in at a first hearing; the slower and more lyrical middle part was easier to savor. The last third was a fast virtuoso workout. I would like to hear the work again, perhaps programmed with Béla Bartók’s Music for Two Pianos and Percussion.