The Fessenden Ensemble played Tuesday at St. Columba's Episcopal Church.
The Fessenden Ensemble played Tuesday at St. Columba's Episcopal Church. (By Wayne Guenther)
Thursday, March 1, 2007

Joyce DiDonato

The young mezzo Joyce DiDonato has been stirring things up on the operatic stage for the last few years, winning hearts and minds for her dramatic depth as much as for her remarkable, multifaceted voice. So it was a real pleasure to hear her Tuesday in the relatively intimate Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, where she presented an unusually captivating recital that ranged from lullabies to scorched-earth coloratura.

Accompanied by the fine pianist Julius Drake, DiDonato opened with five songs by Georges Bizet. It was an inspired beginning; these songs are lyrical almost to a fault, and she delivered finely calibrated interpretations, precisely balanced between full-voiced richness and transparent delicacy.

But that was mere lead-in to the blockbuster of the evening, Giacomo Rossini's solo cantata "Giovanna d'Arco." It's a dazzling tour de force, almost a catalogue of coloratura technique. And while it may sound a bit overcooked to modern ears, DiDonato carved a brilliant and explosive drama out of it, repeatedly building the tension, drawing back and building again into a final climax -- a performance as psychologically astute as it was powerful.

The second half of the program was given over to Spanish music, including five darkly poetic songs by Enrique Granados (known in his homeland as "the Spanish Schubert") and seven songs by Manuel de Falla. DiDonato has taken a particular interest in this music, and it's well suited for her; she brought a growling wit to "El PaƱo Moruno" and a convincing Iberian pathos to "Asturiana," before closing the evening with three sophisticated, beguiling songs by the much-too-little-known Xavier Montsalvatge.

-- Stephen Brookes

Fessenden Ensemble

Tuesday evening was yet another of the festive occasions offered by the Fessenden Ensemble at St. Columba's Episcopal Church, replete with an unconventional assortment of musical gems. The group began with Gioacchino Rossini's Overture to his opera "The Barber of Seville," a tuneful medley that raced through moments now ebullient, now pathos-tinged, now sparkling with wit. Originally composed for full orchestra, the piece was played in a novel arrangement for woodwind quintet with a clean articulation of phrases and spirited elan, though the ensemble sounded a little less than perfect.

The music that followed, Luigi Boccherini's Quintetto in C and Josef Bohuslav Foerster's rarely heard Nonet for strings and winds, fared well with the Fessenden. This kind of chamber music originated back in Mozart's day as plein-air entertainment, even imagined as a cure for maladies of the body and soul. It was not designed as concert music meant to be attentively listened to. The group treated the Boccherini like the confectionary delight it is, even with its overdose of repetition.

Its performance of the Foerster captured the music's eclectic mix of moods and neo-romantic voluptuousness. The many solo moments were played with seamless legatos and soulful sweetness. And one couldn't miss the traces of Wagner sifted through Mahler -- the nostalgic instrumental timbres, the modal harmonic color -- everything reflecting the composer's Czech heritage.

-- Cecelia Porter

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