The NC Museum of Art’s popular Sights and Sounds on Sundays series, given in partnership with the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, offered a fine program of mostly contemporary American music, presented by the eclectic musical group Triptych, in the well-filled NCMA auditorium on the afternoon of October 28. The “Sights” for this concert were black and white photographs that added less to the performance than is usual in this series.

Robert Ward is well known to Triangle music lovers. Michael Ching, currently Artistic Director of Opera Memphis, commissioned his teacher’s Appalachian Ditties and Dances and, with violinist Amy Mugavero, premiered the work at a music festival in the mountains. Ward explained that the first two movements (“Womenfolk, Just Chatin'” and “A Lorn One, Grievin'”) were inspired by photos in James Agee’s Let Us All Now Praise Famous Men while the last (“Cloggin'”) reflects mountain dew-animated fiddle conventions he and his wife used to attend on their vacations. Ward recently transcribed the set for cellist Selma Gokcen, who with pianist John Owings gave the first local reading of the revised version. The first movement begins with slow hymn-like music for piano. An unhurried slow song exploits the middle and lower cello registers and allowed Gokcen to display her fine, rich tone. The interplay of the two instruments evoked the atmosphere of women having a relaxed conversation on a porch; the mood was not unlike Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The second movement begins with the cello in the higher register singing a mournful tune, followed by muted piano accompaniment. The two instruments built to a heartfelt intensity. The last movement is playful and dance-like. The original version of Appalachian Ditties and Dances can be heard in a performance by Eric Larsen and Stephen Shipps on an Albany CD)

T.J. Anderson, retired from Tufts University and now living in Chapel Hill, gave some of the background that led to his Words My Mother Taught Me, a song cycle for soprano and piano premiered last year. Mark DeVoto has written that Anderson’s music “reflect[s] a global awareness of human experience in the 20th century, synthesizing Eastern and Western classical traditions with the Black experience in America.” The song cycle was inspired by the poetry of his mother, Anita Turpean Anderson It reflects the harsh realities of early 20th century racial discrimination and the longing for freedom and self-respect. Soprano Louise Toppin, who has made American songs her specialty, was joined by pianist Owings. The five poems are “The Future,” “I want to be free” (part 1), “People,” “I want to be free” (part 2) and “Life.” The bright acoustics of the hall exacerbated the extensive writing in Toppin’s highest register of voice, sometimes giving the quality of chalk on a board. I was especially moved by the combination of music and poetry in “I want to be Free” (part 2), which serves as a litany after each affront to the poet’s humanity. The dissonant and spare piano part utilized tone clusters, played at one point by the pianist’s elbow. I would like to hear the work again in a warmer acoustics.

Toppin gave a more audience-friendly sample of her vocalism in three Gershwin songs. Witty word play and class distinctions were at the heart of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”.Her warm, full middle and lower ranges were ideal in a nicely paced “Summertime.” The familiar “By Strauss” (1936) was playful, with trills and splendid high notes at the end.

Fritz Gearhart and Owings gave a vital reading of the Suite for Violin and Piano by William Grant Still. The first movement, marked “Majestically” was inspired by an African dancer, opening with somber piano chords leading to a faster section, and a slower hymn-like close. The second movement featured a soulful song for the violin with high exposed notes displaying Gearhart’s precise intonation. He also interpolated a cadenza by Louis Kaufman, transcribed from a broadcast of Still’s orchestral version of the piece not included in Gearhart’s fine Koch recording of the Suite. The last movement, marked “Rhythmically and humorously,” was full of sassy writing for the violin and plenty of pyrotechnics.

The specter of September 11 played two roles at Sunday’s concert. The horrors of the attacks unblocked composer Mark Taggart’s inspiration for arrangements of two Spirituals that he had deferred till late in the game. “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” and “There is a Balm in Gilead” are arranged for the full Triptych ensemble. In the first, unison strings led to a humming vocalise followed by the piano. Toppin’s lower range was on full display throughout. The second has a lighter texture and exploited her higher register.

Toppin will sing three performances of Messiah at Duke later this season. Gokcen’s fine musicianship has been greatly missed since she moved from ECU to London’s Guildhall School of Music. Gearhart, now based at the University of Oregon, is missed here, too. Owings, from Texas Christian University, replaced former ECU pianist Donna Coleman (now in Australia!); he was a welcome addition to the ensemble and the only non-Pirate in the lot