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Songs take look back in time

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — The windows of Westminster Presbyterian Church reflected the packed pews of people who came to listen to the “Songs of the Civil War” program presented by the Natchez Festival of Music Monday evening. Soprano Kristin Vogel performed several pieces that the famous opera singer Jenny Lind sang when she came to Natchez in 1851.

NATCHEZ — The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history, but the music and stories that emerged from it are beautiful.

Natchez Festival of Music organizers have altered the theme of the previously performed Songs of the South to fit into the present Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration, called Songs of the Civil War.

Jonathan Levin, pianist and musical director of Songs of the Civil War, is a resident of Brooklyn who came to Natchez for the festival last year to accompany on piano. His visit landed him the new gig as musical director.

“Last year a pianist was needed for an outreach opera,” Levin said. “I came down, had a great time and they liked me for some reason.

Levin said he is impressed with the selections and format of Songs of the Civil War.

“We pulled together a fabulous program with a wide variety of different songs — songs people will recognize in different arrangements never heard in this way,” Levin said. “And all of the artists are so uniquely different.”

Tenor Tyrone Chambers sings the old gospel spiritual “Lord, I Don’t Feel Noways Tired” at Songs of the Civil War Monday night.

Levin said the program is loosely divided into five sections representing various viewpoints of the Civil War.

“(We want to convey) feelings about the Civil War of the entire community,” Levin said. “We are presenting a wide, diverse view of the whole situation. It is accurate, telling the whole story.”

The first section of Songs of the Civil War features the Mississippi River opening up to commerce. Levin said second part conveys the story of renown Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, who sang in Natchez. The third part is songs plantation owners sang at soirees, contrasted against the spiritual songs of slave culture.

“The fifth part is devoted to the war proper and various themes involved with that,” Levin said. “It will end with the Star Spangled Banner. The program is very much like a journey.”

Shana Braxton and Willie Minor are local vocalists, and the remaining six vocalists are guests.

“The artists are highly selected for great voice and great personality,” Rena Jean Schmieg said. Schmieg is on the festival’s board of directors and serves as president of the Natchez Festival of Music Guild. “We are a little town, and to have people of this quality here is just fantastic.”

Scott Roche, a baritone from New York, said Songs of the Civil War is a strong focus on American music.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Roche said. “A lot of these are songs that I like that also go with my voice type, but I could not think of a context to fit (the songs) in an other setting. Songs of the Civil War is the perfect context.”

Roche, who participated in Songs of the South last year, said coming to Natchez for the festival of music is like a working vacation.

Levin agreed.

“Everyone is so gracious and hospitable, and they have a love for what we do as well,” he said. “As musicians, it’s rewarding to perform in a place where people appreciate what you have worked so hard to do.”

Levin said attendance at Sunday’s opening night performance exceeded his expectations.

“We hope we can continue that the rest of the week,” Levin said. “The program offers something for everyone.

“There are some very serious works, heartbreaking really,” Levin said. “A letter from Sullivan Ballou will be read set to music sung by sopranos.”

Ballou is best remembered for the eloquent letter he wrote to his wife a week before he fought and was mortally wounded in the First Battle of Bull Run.

“Something about this piece breaks my heart,” Levin said. “Maybe it’s the combination of words and the music it’s set to. But there are comic pieces as well to provide relief from the heavy theme of the concert.”

Songs of the Civil War was partly made possible with a grant from the National Park Service.

“Kathleen Jenkins (parks superintendent) wanted to do something to connect heritage tourism and the festival,” Schmieg said. “The grant enabled the festival to get these (artists) here.”

Levin said meeting and collaborating with other artists in Natchez is his favorite part of the Natchez Festival of Music.

Kevin Radtke, a tenor from Princeton, said the music-making is great, but the best part of the festival is coming back and reconnecting with friends. Radtke said he has learned a lot about the Civil War since coming to Natchez to participate in the festival.

“Coming from different parts of the country, we did not necessarily have a Civil War repertoire,” Radtke said. “It emerged out of this great program with a lot of variety. We were simply told the parameters of the grant and the program, are doing what we love surrounded by wonderful people.”

Levin said he feels blessed with opportunities like these.

“It’s so fulfilling,” Levin said. “This is the first professional festival I’ve played, and it’s been a great experience so far. Doing something like this is an affirmation. It makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile.”

Schmieg said that while she is not a musician, she wants to be a part of bringing Songs of the Civil War, and the festival itself, to people.

“This festival is too important not to do it,” Schmieg said.

Songs of the Civil War will be at 8 p.m. every day through Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Natchez. Tickets for the event are $15 and can be reserved in advance by calling Natchez Pilgrimage Tours at 601-446-6631 or at www.natchezpilgrimage.com.

Upcoming festival productions include Little Red Riding Hood for Natchez-Adams County Schools April 18 though 29, Jonathan Levin in concert April 26 and the Alcorn State University Spring Concert on May 1.

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