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On the incongruities of a venerable concert hall's summer programming

August 23, 2012

There's an interesting disconnect at the Library of Congress in the way it presents some of its concerts.

The Coolidge auditorium, where the venerable institution's live music programming generally takes place, is a quintessentially old fashioned concert hall. Built in the 1920s, it is designed to suit passive audiences sitting in the dark watching virtuoso performers on stage and clapping politely when they're done.

But the music that I've been experiencing there this summer couldn't be less suited to these surroundings. They have all been part of the LOC's annual, free, summer Homegrown Concert Series, which seeks to present, according to the American Folklife Center which runs them, "the very best of traditional music and dance from a variety of folk cultures thriving in the United States."

So far while I've been here in DC, I've heard concerts from a diverse range of musical traditions. The offerings have included Flatpick Guitar and Fiddle Music from Kanawha County, West Virginia; French-Canadian Fiddle Music and Songs from New Hampshire; Traditional Croatian Singing from Washington State; and, just this afternoon, music from the African American Methodist Prayer Meetings and Camp Meetings of Delaware and Maryland (pictured above).

What's striking to me is that while the lineup includes virtuoso performances, these folk musics are much more about participation than silent observation.

It was impossible to sit still in the frigid Coolidge Auditorium as fiddler Bobby Taylor and guitarists Robert Shafer and Robin Kessinger performed their kinetic songs from Kanawha County, West Virginia two weeks ago. I wanted to stamp my feet, clap my hands and kick down the stiff rows of tombstone-like concert chairs.

And today's presentation by a devout group of elderly African American singers, "The Singing and Praying Bands of Delaware and Maryland," couldn't have been less like a traditional concert. Most of the performers sang with their backs to the audience (they stood in the configuration that they use during a typical church service) and they took a loose, improvisatory approach to the songs. Best of all, the chorus actually encouraged those of us sitting in the stalls to clap, stand up and dance, and join in with the singing, which many people did to varying degrees.

I can't decide if I like the incongruity of experiencing this kind of programming in this kind of setting or whether it bothers me. Probably a bit of both.

I do wish that the space were more conducive to audience involvement though. As much as I've enjoyed most of the music this summer, I've mostly felt like I've been watching these concert at a distance through the bars of a cage. It's been rather like staring at monkeys and elephants at the zoo.


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