Soprano Penolope Jensen gave an all-American recital at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening. Covering a wide repertory, she made a strong case for more frequent performances of American music while also revealing why its reputation is not the best.
High points of the evening included works by Ives, Griffes and Barber, as well as two Washington premieres. The low points were two songs by John Cage, a composer who richly deserves all the neglect he is finally achieving.
On the musical side of things, the soprano felt most comfortable in the upper reaches of her voice, where the sound had the edge of fine crystal. The program was well chosen to show off these talents. Regrettably, her dramatic range is short, and there was a sense of detached good taste in most of her readings. Barbara's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915" in which her sweet restraint resulted in a very moving creation, was an exception.
Two Washington premieres were rewarding -- "The Jade Garden" by Leslie Bassett, and "The Clean Dispatch of Death," an austere song cycle by Klaus George Roy. Cage, the last of the American Dadaists, was represented in the concert by "A Flower," and by a setting of texts by Joyce called "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs."
The audience could hardly be repreimanded for a few muffled giggles during "A Flower," as the soprano sang words like ". . . oooh oooh, wah wah oooh," with pianist uncomfortably tapping out pseudo-primitive rhythms.
The program also included five songs by George Antheil, and Elliot Carter's improbable setting of Walt Whitman's "Warble for Lilac-time."