The best-known pieces of religious music tend to be large works: Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," Mozart's Requiem, Handel's "Messiah," Bach's choral masterpieces. Nan Nall's Easter Sunday concert in the National Gallery's East Garden Court was a convincing reminder that smallness can also be beautiful.
It was an evening to savor. Nall has a glorious, full-bodied voice with glowing vibrato and she's not afraid to use it. Her control was equally evident at the other end of the spectrum -- her pianissimo is clear, hushed, just barely this side of silence.
The performance, which drew heavily on religious themes, included several Washington premie res and the world premie re of Thomas Beveridge's "A Woman's Love," set to works by Sara Teasdale. In "Child," Nall was particularly strong, balanced against the sparse accompaniment of pianist Veda Zupancic. Zupancic was an empathetic partner throughout the evening, subdued at moments but also offering carefully controlled power, as in the shimmering, rhythmically compelling part for "Spring Rain."
Vivian Fine's music from Elizabethan songs followed, including a brief "Daybreak" from John Donne that was evanescent as the moment of dawn. Lise Messier joined Nall, blending flawlessly -- and with feeling -- in Terry Wallstein's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and William Mayer's "Always, Always Forever Again." Wallstein's setting of Robert Frost's poem was rich in its use of silence, with a lean piano part that was felt in its brief moments of absence.
Nall was in dialogue with Zupancic's jagged, discordant fragment in Mel Powell's "Haiku Settings," Op. 12. The Powell songs were never oppressive, but Grant Beglarian's "To Manitou!" balanced the program all the same, giving respite from the dissonance. His songs, with a strong tonal center and a more traditional melodic sensibility, were based on American Indian poems and rituals. The concert ended with an equally fine performance of Samuel Barber's "Hermit Songs."