How's this for pure poetry? "The machine is gear-driven. The main gear, fixed to the axle, draws the angled shaft upon which are mounted the arms carrying the forks."
That's part of Darius Milhaud's idyllically pastoral and mildly sentimental song "The Haymaker," from his 1919 cycle "Machines Agricoles" ("Agricultural Machinery"), which has a text lifted bodily from an advertising brochure. The English translation is by baritone William Sharp, who sang "Machines Agricoles" and Francis Poulenc's witty, touching, technically dazzling "Le Bal Masque" ("The Masked Ball") with the 20th Century Consort Saturday at the Hirshhorn Museum.
The program, titled "Nonsense Implements," abounded in comedy, a quality far too rare in music of the 20th century. Besides the two cycles sung by Sharp, it included crisp, expertly styled performances of two instrumental works: Igor Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto, in which the humor is fairly subtle, and Bohuslav Martinu's "La Revue de Cuisine" ("Kitchen Revue"), in which it is not. The Martinu suite originated as a brief ballet about the troubled romance between a pot and a lid. The quality of its dance numbers, including a tango, a Charleston and a bit of ragtime, indicates that Martinu could have been Czechoslovakia's answer to George Gershwin if he had chosen.
"Le Bal Masque" includes some virtuoso instrumental solos and echoes of pop music in the introduction and interludes that set off its four vocal numbers, but the focus is on Poulenc's settings of four poems by Max Jacob, full of agile wordplay, surrealistic streams of consciousness and occasional touches of heart-wrenching pathos. It would be hard to say which is more difficult to sing, Milhaud's deadpan setting of a machinery catalogue or Poulenc's cycle with its mercurial changes of mood and pace, but Sharp negotiated them both splendidly, sensitive to the smallest emotional nuances. His French diction was so clear and precise that anyone with a working knowledge of the language could reconstruct the original text as he sang it with only his singing and the English translation as a guide.
Christopher Kendall, the Consort's artistic director, who devised this exhilarating concert, also conducted the Poulenc and Stravinsky numbers, elegantly, precisely and with a fine sense of style.