The Theater Chamber Players of Kennedy Center presented a fascinating capsule survey of Italian vocal music Saturday night that covered seven centuries and avoided predictable choices. While program emphasized the oldest and the newest, with 14th-century madrigals by Jacopo da Bologna and Giovanni da Cascia, a Barbara Strozzi cantata published in 1659, and two modern works by Girolamo Arrigo and Luigi Dallapiccola, a sense of evolution emerged through the various demands placed on the vocalists.
In the madrigals, tenor James McDonald and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin engaged in long, sinuous melismatic lines that paused for octave harmonies and resounding dominant consonances. McDonald later joined horn player Orrin Olson in Arrigo's "Lo schiavo morente" ("The Dying Slave"), a declamatory piece that opens with singer and horn exchanging A's -- much like an orchestra tuning up -- and later assigns them quasi-recitative roles. McDonald brought strength and conviction to this unusual setting.
Mezzo-soprano Janice Felty rendered the harpsichord-cello backing all but unnecessary with her forceful delivery of Strozzi's "Lagrime mie." She blended much more effectively when supported by one, two and sometimes three clarinets in Dallapiccola's terse "Goethe-Lieder," sung in German.
The Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor that closed was a satisfying change of pace. Pianist Claude Frank teamed with violinist Hyo Kang, violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Evelyn Elsing for a demonstratively exciting performance.