Anthony Antolini, director of the Bowdoin Chorus, had a bold idea for his choir’s spring program. The works would all be contemporary, most of them written within the last few years. And there would be a timely theme linking these pieces. On the surface, that theme was summarized in the program’s title, “This Will Be Our Reply to Violence.” But the works at hand suggested a different theme – a pair of linked questions: “How has America gone wrong, and how can we fix it?”

Vineet Shende, a member of Bowdoin’s music faculty (as well as a tenor in the choir, which brings together students, teachers, staff and community members) contributed the opening work, “The Star-Spangled Banner: E pluribus unum, non ex pluribus divisum” (2017), a reworking of the anthem as a reminder of the national motto, “out of many, one” – with the admonition that dividing the “many” by race and national origin betrays the country’s essential spirit.

Revamping the anthem in tense times is not a new idea. Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 reinterpretation, originally a Vietnam War protest, illustrated the rockets’ red glare (and subsequent explosions) in its guitar lines, and used taps, the military funeral melody, as punctuation. His performance is now regarded as a classic, as is the Kronos Quartet’s transcription for strings, which repurposed Hendrix’s arrangement to protest the Iraq war.

Shende’s approach was to imagine what Charles Ives might have done. His version of the anthem is at a tempo slower than it is typically played, and in a classic Ivesian move, he has woven in clashing themes – Mexican popular songs, a Syrian folk tune, a hymn associated with black churches – offered as counterpoint and commentary. The anthem itself is transformed as well, with flatted notes turning ebullient passages into mournful strains, the musical equivalent of the Statue of Liberty with a tear running down her cheek. It’s not subtle, but there is no reason it should be.

Mohammed Fairouz, a Muslim composer who was born in New York and is based there, was represented by “Different Ways to Pray” (2015), a three-movement setting of texts that includes a traditional Islamic prayer of supplication, sung in Arabic, and two works by Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet, sung in English. It was commissioned by a consortium of choirs and colleges across the country, Bowdoin among them.

Fairouz has long taken an ecumenical, pacifist approach in his work. But in a timely illustration of the program’s concerns, he was in the news last week, having been detained at Kennedy airport upon his return from recording sessions in Manchester and given no reason other than that he had a common Arab name.

“Different Ways to Pray” is a melting pot of influences: melodies tinged with Middle Eastern modalism are wrapped in a rich, bright, Western harmonic cloak, and underscored with an appealing rhythmic vitality.

The concert’s title work, by Maine composer Aaron Robinson, was written in response to the November 2015 Paris attacks. It takes its text from remarks that composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein made a few days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The reply Bernstein spoke of was “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Robinson’s gentle, sweetly melodic, prayer-like setting meets two-thirds of Bernstein’s prescription: Beauty and devotion are plentiful, but intensity is in short supply.

Robinson’s “For Those Who Have Not Died in Vain: Requiem for a New World” (1997) closed the program. An attractive, richly tuneful work in the spirit of Gabriel Fauré’s gentle Requiem, it has a distinctive American accent, captured in its sometimes theatrical melodies and syncopated meters. A central element of the work is the juxtaposition of Robinson’s music with recordings of excerpts from moving speeches by presidents Kennedy, Roosevelt and Lincoln (the last read by Carl Sandburg), as well as Martin Luther King, Edward Kennedy and others.

The Shende and Robinson’s Requiem were accompanied by the Mozart Mentors Orchestra, a student-teacher ensemble, which played the music beautifully. There was also some attractive solo singing by tenor David Myers Jr., and mezzo-soprano Joëlle Coleman Morris, in the Requiem. But the choir sounded tepid and unfocused – a surprise, in light of the robust performance of Haydn’s “The Creation” last year.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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