The Smithsonian Chamber Players joined forces with guest sopranos Julianne Baird and Judith Nelson Tuesday night at the Smithsonian Institution's Hall of Musical Instruments to produce a lively time capsule of music from the 17th-century Italian avant-garde. The concert began with four secular pieces by Claudio Monteverdi, whose revolutionary break from the traditional strictures of his day led to the flowering of Baroque music.
Baird was particularly impressive as she sang Monteverdi's "Lamento d'Arianna," about a woman whose lover is leaving her. Baird displayed fine control and wide dynamic range, as her crystalline voice captured emotions from anger tinged with sorrow to a hushed, yearning sigh. She was equally assured in highly ornamented trill-laden passages and slower parts. Judith Nelson, accompanied by Kenneth Slowik on cello, James Weaver on harpsichord and lutanist Konrad Junghanel, shone in the love song "Se i Languidi Miei Sguardi." Both singers possessed dynamic stage presence that brought the songs vividly to life.
Monteverdi's "Cantate Domino" provided one of the evening's several high points. Baird and Nelson's voices linked effortlessly, subtly intertwining, with one taking the melody as the other sang around it, then changing parts.
The Chamber Players' accompaniment complemented the singers throughout. Weaver and Slowik's harpsichord duets in Bernardo Pasquini's sonatas in F major, C major and E minor were an instrumental highlight. They sparkled in the E minor sonata, which is first somber, then spritely, playing with a finely tuned blend of rollicking elegance, almost giving the air of a jam session.