National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble provides some pleasant surprises in concert

June 9

Composers and painters have influenced one another in many eras, and in France at the end of the 19th century, the ties were strong. In a concert Sunday evening, the National Gallery of Art Vocal Ensemble explored the atmosphere of that period, offering music that complemented the museum’s exhibit of works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt.

The selection featured many unexpected choices, and the performance was generally good, despite a few flaws in intonation and French pronunciation. Sets of pieces by Gabriel Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn included mostly unfamiliar ensemble songs, and it was there that the performers were strongest, as a well-balanced ensemble, such as the four men in a fun rendition of the “Sérénade d’hiver” by Saint-Saëns. The best solo contributions came from bass Steven Combs, in Hahn’s “A Phidylé,” and tenor Matthew Smith, the heroic-voiced returning son in excerpts from Debussy’s cantata “L’enfant prodigue.” Pianist Maribeth Gowen was a solid presence as accompanist, if heavy on the sustaining pedal for the West Garden Court’s wet acoustic.

More drama-oriented music in the second half underscored an important theme in Cassatt’s painting, that of well-heeled spectators in Parisian theaters. Selections from Jacques Offenbach operettas were raucous enough, but this is a specialized repertoire that does not come easily to all performers. Much of the music drew on other interests of the period, not found in the exhibit’s paintings, such as the encoded exoticism of poets Robert de Montesquiou and Leconte de Lisle, and the fetishism of the poetry and musical style of the Renaissance in the work of Hahn, for example. The most glaring omission, considering the importance of women in the paintings of Degas and Cassatt, was of female voices in the choice of poets and composers.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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