When you're Gian Carlo Menotti, your 80th birthday doesn't pass without some organized fanfare, even six months before the fact. A spontaneous standing ovation greeted the composer when he appeared onstage at the National Academy of Sciences Friday night to accept a silver medallion from National Musical Arts ensemble director Patricia Gray, who noted that the inscription read, "The mysterious is the most beautiful thing in life." Fitting words for a composer still captivating and provoking audiences through such stage works as "The Saint of Bleecker Street," which opened Saturday at the Kennedy Center.
Menotti's own pieces dominated a musical tribute starring soprano Faith Esham, otherwise engaged as Pamina in the current Washington Opera production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Her treatment of "Nocturne" fluctuated between declamatory boldness and dulcet tenderness, underscoring the text's deep ruminations inspired by a dark starry sky. An unusual backing of string quartet and harp, the same configuration that had previously enlivened Menotti's "Cantilena Scherzo," supported Esham with care. "Five Songs" gave her more room to stretch melodically and dramatically. She brought a deep sense of longing to "The Longest Wait," playful humor to "My Ghost" and literal meaning to the phrases "slower and lower swings" and "to the final stop" in "The Swing." Patricia Gray provided exacting piano accompaniment.
The two non-Menotti entries were Henry Cowell's Quartet for flute, oboe, cello and harp and Amy Beach's Piano Quintet. Despite Beach's predictable use of chromatic movement to create tension, the group anchored by Gray played with an unquenchable gusto that left the audience giddy.