Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Early birthday party to be held for Lincoln

By Nick Rogers, for the University of Illinois at Springfield

Fire stoked in a belly or fear struck in a heart isn’t a traditional measure of success for a piece of music. For Jay Ungar, that essence is inherent to the hits of the ‘60s.

The 1860s, that is.

“Without recordings and radio and all that, many more people played an instrument, and everybody sang,” says Ungar, a fiddler and mandolin player. “It was part of the fabric of the culture. Music also had an effect during the war, when a powerful song like ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ was said to actually affect the outcome of battle.”

The Civil War, and its preceding tensions, dictated the emotions behind much of America’s popular music from the 1840s to 1860s. However, those tunes echoed not just a tumultuously changing society or combat’s chaos, but also a trans-generational importance of home comforts, family milestones and community togetherness.

In that more joyous spirit, the University of Illinois at Springfield will host “An Early Birthday Party for A. Lincoln” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31 in Sangamon Auditorium.

Headlining this musical bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth will be Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, who plays mandolin, guitar and piano. The duo is best known for “Ashokan Farewell,” a haunting instrumental immortalized in popular culture by its memorable use in “The Civil War,” Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS documentary. Ungar and Mason will perform that, along with many 19th-century tunes.

Accompanying them will be two Springfield arts groups with UIS connections – the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Band and the Springfield International Folk Dancers. Including those groups, says Sangamon Auditorium director Robert A. Vaughn, continues the auditorium’s ongoing mission to foster local collaboration and expand outreach.

“We’ve made great strides to improve that sense of university ownership while further strengthening collaborative ties with civic arts organizations,” Vaughn says. “It provides the opportunity to see the auditorium as more than just a place that people can go and see performances, but as a tool to enrich curriculum.”

For this artistic complement to Lincoln’s bicentennial birthday on Feb. 12, Vaughn purposely avoided scheduling it at the same time as other planned celebrations.

“I thought it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to try to crowd the calendar at that time, but to have a more modest celebration out on campus,” Vaughn says.

Modest, perhaps, but its deep fidelity to the time period is, in one instance, literal icing on the cake. Shortly after its mustering in 1861, the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry became one of few such regiments to have its own 12-member band. Today, the band is a 25-member group of central Illinois musicians who wear Civil War-style cavalry uniforms and play antique brass instruments and re-produced drums.

Conducting the cavalry band is Todd Cranson, assistant director of co-curricular music at UIS and director of the UIS band and chamber orchestra. Cranson’s polished-ebony baton, inlaid with silver, once belonged to the leader of the 2nd Iowa Cavalry Band, which frequently performed for Abraham Lincoln.

Cranson also has collaborated with Ungar and Mason on adapting their existing arrangements to include the cavalry band’s instrumentation. Although string groups and brass bands of the day often played the same songs, they rarely played together. Modern amplification has simplified blending the instruments, Cranson says.

Among the folk dancers joining the cavalry band onstage during “The Mary Lincoln Polka” will be Amy Zepp – a UIS graduate student in public administration and a graduate assistant at Sangamon Auditorium.

“People were just starting to learn the traditional polka that we think of today,” Zepp says of that selection’s period-specific choreography. “It will be similar to what people are familiar with now, but somewhat more traditional. The positioning of the couple will be farther apart, as such close dancing was considered inappropriate.”

Lastly, in the auditorium lobby after the performance, complimentary birthday cake – from a Mary Todd Lincoln recipe – will be served, along with punch and coffee.

When selecting Ungar and Mason to perform, Vaughn was particularly stricken by the suitability of “Ashokan Farewell.” Ungar composed the piece in 1982 as an elegy for the end of a musically memorable summer. Eight years later, Burns used it numerous times during “The Civil War,” and the tune propelled the soundtrack to a 1991 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Ungar says he may have “unintentionally Americanized” the Scottish lament style with “Ashokan Farewell.” But it since has become synonymous with both the era’s musical style and a general sense of human sadness or longing.

“We hear from a lot of people who’ve not ever seen the ‘Civil War’ series who write me almost in shock, asking, ‘Why am I crying when I hear this tune?’ It’s gratifying to know it touches many people in that way,” Mason says.

“I thought it was embarrassing to play that tune with tears coming out of the corner of my eye,” Ungar says. “But when I saw it did the same for others, it was magical.”

Prior to the concert, Ungar will present a fiddling workshop discussing his music at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29 in the Visual and Performing Arts Building. Those interested in participating may call (217) 206-8405.

Alongside “Ashokan Farewell” on the Jan. 31 program will be selections tied to the country’s mid-19th-century mood, Lincoln’s musical preferences and his political legacy.

“The Vacant Chair” sadly chronicles a family gathering with a seat left open in memory of a fallen soldier. A sing-along medley that Ungar and Mason dub “Hits of the ’60s” will touch on popular Union and Confederate melodies.

“We came to understand that the songs of the north were sung in the south and vice versa,” Ungar says. “We were still one cultural unit in some ways. Everyone knew all the songs, and the most powerful ones, the other side would have their own lyrics for them.”

Mason hopes to perform “Listen to the Mockingbird,” an 1855 song reported to be Lincoln’s favorite and one that has lived on as a fiddle-contest favorite.

“The identity in the music we’re looking at here has a very strong emotional content,” Ungar says. “It is very playable and danceable, and has lyrics that speak very directly of people’s feelings, inner life and higher goals to aspire to.”

“It’s one part educational and one part historical to a modern audience, but the major portion is for entertainment,” Cranson says. “The kind of thing it seems Abe liked the most is fun.”

Tickets for “An Early Birthday Party for A. Lincoln” are $37 and are available: online at; by calling (217) 206-6160 or toll free at (800) 207-6960; or from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Sangamon Auditorium Ticket Office.