BUXTON — From outside, the pair of converted church buildings, perched on a high bank overlooking the Saco River here, look staid and unassuming, but actually, they are the wings of a not-for-profit arts center that has been presenting theater, dance, art exhibitions and music since 1990. The larger of the two carries the center’s name, the Saco River Theater, and is the venue for its bigger productions. Its neighbor, the Old White Church, is for unamplified concerts, and on Sunday afternoon, it hosted a recital by baritone Peter Allen and pianist Paul Machlin, offered as a benefit for the center.

Allen and Machlin devoted their program, “At the River,” to songs by American composers who flourished during the first half of the 20th century. Since both performers have experience in classical music, theater and jazz, they moved easily among those genres, and filled out the picture further by ending with a group of vividly sung spirituals, in arrangements by Harry T. Burleigh.

Granted, the spirituals date to the 19th century, if not earlier, but they were grandfathered in through Burleigh, who died in 1949.

And they helped Allen and Machlin make a topical point. As Allen noted in his introduction to the concert, all the works were composed by immigrants or the descendants of immigrants – willing immigrants or, in the case of the descendants of slaves, forced.

That, of course, would be true of any program of American music that did not include a work by a Native American composer, but with debates about immigration in the news, it seemed a point worth making.

The duo began with an appealing selection of settings from Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” (1950-52) including the sentimental salon ballad, “Long Time Ago,” and the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” which was the source of the main theme of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Allen sang these with a rich, rounded baritone that gave the melodies a nostalgic lilt that was gently offset by Machlin’s performance of Copland’s inventive piano accompaniments. Machlin, who is also a conductor, undoubtedly knew Copland’s later orchestrations of these pieces, and his playing hinted at their subtle coloration.

The closing piece in the Copland group, “At the River,” gave the concert its title, and was one of two settings of that hymn tune Allen and Machlin played. The other, near the end of the program, was Charles Ives’ 1916 setting, nestled amid a group of the composer’s alternately introspective and quirkily humorous vignettes.

The heart of the program was a group in which Allen and Machlin created song pairs (and in one case, a trilogy) in which theater songs by Jerome Kern were linked, by way of short piano improvisations, with contemporaneous Duke Ellington tunes – for example, Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away” (from “Cover Girl,” 1944) and Ellington’s “I Didn’t Know About You” (1943).

In truth, Kern and Ellington were not worlds apart in these selections, although Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (1932), which closed the set, injected a touch of jazzy syncopation that was absent from the Kern songs. The overall effect, most palpable in Allen’s graceful renderings of Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” (from “Swing Time,” 1936), and Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (1944), was an intensely nostalgic sense of a vanished world, in which popular songs were written to such exacting and sophisticated standards.

Allen also sang a selection of Kurt Weill’s theater songs, including a ruminative account of “September Song” (from “Knickerbocker Holiday,” 1938) and “The Saga of Jenny” (from “Lady in the Dark,” 1940), with Machlin gamely joining in the dialogue that makes up the latter’s scene-setting introduction. And just when you were wondering how Gershwin got left out of this spirited, genre-crossing program, Allen and Machlin offered his “They All Laughed” as an encore.

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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Twitter: kozinn

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