Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

Gershwin's Piano: Concerts from the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress dome Photo, Washington, D.C., United States

The Library of Congress’ concert series runs from roughly mid September through late May, which is characteristic of many of Washington’s free concert series. (There are many free summer concerts, of course, but they tend to be held on or near the Mall to accommodate summer visitors.) Be forewarned that going to a concert at the Library of Congress might take a little more advance planning, for the tickets, while technically free, are made available via Ticketron about six weeks before the date of the performance. A small handling fee is charged, and there is a limit of two tickets per order. The main challenge, though, is that tickets are snapped up fast.

A look at some of the performers on the schedule from past seasons makes it clear why this happens: Dave Brubeck, Suzanne Vega, Odetta, the Seeger Family, the Julliard String Quartet, Allen Toussaint, Roseanne Cash, Pinetop Perkins… the list goes on and on. (I should add that it’s possible to come the day of the performance at around 6:30 and queue for a limited number of returned tickets made available. I have done this sucessfully, but of course it’s much nicer to simply show up at 8 pm for the concert after a leisurely dinner.)

The majority of concerts feature chamber music, but there are folk, jazz, country, gospel, and bluegrass concerts, among others, as well as an impressive array of music from around the world: everything from African drum music to Basque melodies. And if that weren’t enough, many of the concerts are preceded by lectures by noted musicians and commentators. Some of this year’s performances, for example, are prefaced by lectures on "Music and the Brain," a theme being explored in depth this season. Finally, at least several concerts each year feature débuts of works commissioned by the Library or other arts foundations.

I can’t recall when I first attended one of these concerts, but it’s been some time back, perhaps one of the near-yearly performances by the Beaux Arts Trio. One year I came with a folkie friend to see Hesperus, a group which usually performs medieval and renaissance music but which on that occasion showcased American folk, Latin American, and Celtic music, along with a lively group of cloggers. (A surprising number of concerts feature dancers to accompany the music.)

On another occasion, my husband and I were swept away by a program entitled, "The Music of Fés," featuring, of course, Moroccan music from the city of that name. That turned out to be a delightful cultural blend of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The surprise there was a women’s gospel group from North Carolina paired with the Women’s Hadra Ensemble from southern Morocco. Eclectic? Yes, by darn near anyone’s standards. There are surprises at just about every performance, and I’ve always been impressed by the intelligent and inventive programming.

The most recent concert we attended last November was a good example of this, featuring famed Hungarian folk singer Márta Sebestyén with the ensemble she often collaborates with, Muzsikás, as well as an award-winning classical string quartet, the Takács Quartet. I’d been a fan of Sebestyén ever since hearing some of her music (not a live performance, regrettably) while in Hungary. She’s best known as the voice featured in the film "The English Patient," the voice in question being a very distinct, somewhat edgy and mournful Eastern European-style one. The program that evening featured a great deal of Roma music, which is one of my current obsessions. Needless to say, it was right up my alley.

But the main focus of the evening was the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, who drew inspiration for many of his compositions from traditional folk melodies. I’d never fully appreciated how Bartók drew from this wellspring of folk heritage until this performance, despite having gone to the Ethnographic Museum in Hungary a few years ago and seeing an exhibit on Bartók’s travels with Zoltán Kodály into the countryside to collect and research old Magyar folk melodies. This, essentially, was the beginning of what is known today as ethnomusicology.

For the Library of Congress performance, one of the members of Muzsikás would introduce a melody that Bartók had recorded on wax cylinders back around the turn of the last century, the scratchy recording of peasant performers eerily vibrant still as it resonated in the auditorium. Then Muzsikás would play the same melody on instruments similar to those used by folk musicians of Bartók’s time. Finally, the Takács Quartet would do the reveal: what Bartók did with that simple theme. It was breath-taking – from simple musical idea to full-blown classical development. To conclude this logical progression, a set of traditional tunes, sometimes sung or danced to by Sebestyén, were interspersed with movements of a Bartók string quartet.

There were only two blemishes to the evening: the couple two rows ahead who thought they should bring their young (perhaps six- and eight-year-old) children along for the evening, and the temporary closure of the Ira and George Gershwin room just across from the library’s concert hall. Needless to say, the children were not able to sit still for two hours of Bartók, no matter how rousingly performed. The smaller of the two, a little boy, spent most of his time kicking the back of the chair in front of him. Neither parent saw fit to correct him. (Now, if that had been MY chair, you’d better believe someone would have.)

Not being able to browse through the Gershwin Room at intermission was a disappointment, but, then, I’d seen it several times before. It’s a wonderful place, with George’s piano in the center of the room, surrounded by displays of Gershwin memorabilia in glass cases: original scores for "Porgy and Bess," for example, or Ira’s lyrics for "I Got Rhythm."

Insider Tip: Any visitor who has not paid a daytime visit to the main sections of the Library of Congress (closed in the evening) would be wise to do so. Spend the afternoon off the tourist radar in one of DC’s most evocative buildings, surrounded by amazing bibliographic treasures, then follow that feast with another -- dinner somewhere on Capitol Hill. (I like the Cuban food at the Banana Café over by the Eastern Market, which isn't that far away.) Then take in an evening concert back at the Library of Congress. That’s the quintessential Washington, DC cultural experience, in my book.

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