SOMERVILLE — To do real justice to a Charles Ives birthday tribute, you’d need about a dozen marching bands playing hymn tunes and rags and patriotic songs all at the same time. The Tufts University Department of Music had to make do with a pianist, a violinist, and a mezzo-soprano. Still, its free Charles Ives Birthday Concert Sunday afternoon — Oct. 20, Ives’s actual birthday — was a treat as it offered insights into some of the Connecticut iconoclast’s lesser-known works.
Making a discordant polyphony out of traditional comfort-food music, Ives always had one foot in the 19th century and one in the 20th. This concert had both feet in the 20th. Daniel Stepner and Donald Berman began it with the reconstructed version of “Decoration Day” (from the “Holidays” Symphony) for violin and piano. Stepner’s wiry, astringent tone, itself not a bad fit for Ives, didn’t sort ideally with Berman’s full-blooded and at times aggressive pounding, and they conveyed only a hint of Ives’s swing and sway. But you could hear “Marching Through Georgia” drift into “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground,” and the juxtaposition of “Taps” in the violin with the hymn tune “Bethany” (“Nearer, My God, to Thee”) in the piano was affecting.