CHARLEMONT -- Here on a remote stretch of the Mohawk Trail, tucked into the gentle hills and near a zigzagging river, is the small Federated Church where one day in 1969 the composer and violinist Arnold Black and his wife Ruth, a keyboardist, thought it might be nice to start a music festival.
The Mohawk Trail Concerts are now in their 38th season, and performances still take place in the same modestly appointed church, where the acoustics are good, the setting is intimate, and the piano lid is propped up by a pair of hymnal books. Over the decades, this small jewel of a chamber music festival has become known for its distinctive and adventurous programs, sometimes played by high-profile musicians who have become longtime friends of the series. These include the composer William Bolcom and his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, who have appeared here almost every year since 1974. They returned for their annual visit on Friday night to perform a set of the American cabaret and theater songs for which they have deservedly earned an adoring following.
Calling out each song from the piano bench, Bolcom performed the entire set from memory, his playing notable for its elegance and insouciant ease. Songs by Gershwin, Berlin, Kern, and the Beatles flowed by seamlessly, as did Willard Robison's poignantly bleak number, "A Cottage for Sale." Morris's voice does not have the warm core it once did, nor the softness around the edges, but she is a wonderful performer who breathes freshness and personality into every tune, no matter how many times she's sung it. Some of her acting drew peals of laughter from the audience, especially when she trotted out a Lotte Lenya impression during an encore.
Beyond his genuine love for the American songbook, Bolcom is of course a composer of international standing whose music is being spotlighted as part of this year's Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. The first half of Friday night's program was given over to two of Bolcom's own works: "Simple Stories," a rarely heard setting of two poems by Donald Hall, and "Let Evening Come," a chamber cantata from 1994 with texts by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, and Hall's late wife, Jane Kenyon.
The Da Camera Singers and friends labored valiantly but still seemed to struggle with "Simple Stories" and its decidedly un-simple setting of Hall's poem "Dancers." But Maria Ferrante (soprano), Masako Yanagita (viola), and Estela Olevsky (piano) gave a heartfelt and chillingly beautiful performance of "Let Evening Come." The death-shadowed title poem by Kenyon brims with an ambivalent lyricism, at once reveling in the glorious particulars of a late afternoon in the countryside while preaching a calm acceptance of the arrival of night. Bolcom's music for the earlier poems is full of eruptive viola lines and giant block chords in the piano, but this final poem is set off with pure, luminous vocal lines that seem to drift up high above the fray. Ferrante sang with a focused tone, and a supremely sensitive delivery. The final line lofted quietly over a gently rocking figure in the viola: "God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come."
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.