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.
Berman then brought a ferocious grace to the four “Emerson Transcriptions,” Ives’s own brief meditation on the first movement of his “Concord” Piano Sonata, banging out the references to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and creating a starry firmament out of the second transcription. The concert’s centerpiece, the Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, was similarly knotty and intense and a bit straitlaced. There wasn’t much of a ragtime feel to the second movement, and the hymn tunes, “Need,” “Beulah Land,” and “There’ll Be No Dark Valley,” struggled for room to breathe. (Ives, whose day job was insurance executive, uncannily anticipates the “Nationwide is on your side” jingle in his swing treatment of “There’ll Be No Dark Valley” — talk about being ahead of your time.) At the conclusion of the last movement, Ives stops riffing and lets the violin sing out “Need” in all its simple glory. Here Berman all but covered Stepner, perhaps with the idea that Ives meant to challenge us right to the end.
Berman certainly challenged mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore in the 11 Ives songs that completed the program. It was a nice selection, from the serious (“Old Home Day” and “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” the latter arranged from the 1910 orchestra piece) to the delightfully silly (“Ann Street” and “Charlie Rutlage”). Rentz-Moore’s voice was a little operatic and heavy for this material, and Berman frequently swamped her; she was heard to better advantage against Stepner’s violin. But she whistled bravely through “Memories” and yipped out the “Hip hip hooray” choruses of the patriotic “He Is There!” And for a thoughtful encore, the trio presented a 1943 recording of “They Are There!,” the composer’s updating of that last song, with Ives himself singing and playing, as irrepressibly idiosyncratic as ever.