Among its many nearly magic powers, music has the ability to obliterate distinctions of time and space; it can transport a willing listener, at least momentarily, out of daily routine on strange, exotic and exciting journeys. The visits may be taken only in the mind, the sojourns may be brief and fragmented, but music can transport you without the problems of jet lag and long lines at the customs gate.
The possible destinations include many that are not on any airline's itineraries--medieval Ireland, Renaissance France, ancient Rome or a moonlit landscape in 19th-century Vienna. And while the enchantment lasts, a musical journey can stir the soul to depths beyond a mere physical visit to the Coliseum or the Eiffel Tower.
Washington soprano Dorothy Kingston and pianist Michael Patterson took their audience on a variety of such excursions last week at the National Gallery, aided by the songs of George Frideric Handel, Franz Schubert, Darius Milhaud, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti and Roger Quilter. Except for Handel and Schubert, the composers were from the 20th century, but they seemed chosen to illustrate continuity with music of the past.
Two of the composers were American: Menotti and his lifelong friend and occasional operatic collaborator, Barber. Their songs, dating from the mid-century, showed that "old-fashioned" Romantic styles and techniques, in the hands of composers who knew how to use them, were still as powerful and expressive as ever.
Both of these composers also had a special feeling for the capabilities and limits of the human voice. Barber was, in fact, a baritone of notable ability as well as a composer; Menotti, although he has written some fine instrumental works, is rightly best-known for his vocal music.
Menotti is an amphibious artist: an American composer whose operas have played successfully on Broadway and an Italian composer who runs a highly regarded festival of all the performing arts each summer in the ancient hill town of Spoleto. He is a poet as well as a composer; he has written not only his own librettos but Barber's and not only in English but in Italian.
For this program, Kingston chose five of the seven songs in his Italian cycle "Canti della lontananza" ("Song of Absence"), written for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in 1967. These are psychologically probing reflections on separation from a loved one, written with deep emotional intensity and rich imagination both in poetic images and in musical forms.
The lover reflects on incompatibilities and impossibilities ("you have built your house on water; I've launched my ship on land"); drinks too much; drifts into obsession; waits for a letter and finds it not enough; and retreats into memories and illusions that are recognized as illusions but welcomed gratefully. Kingston explored every nuance of these songs with subtly varied vocal shading and gestures that communicated beyond the limits of words and music.
She was equally eloquent in Barber's "Hermit Songs," 10 artfully contrasted settings of poems translated from Irish texts of the fifth to 13th centuries, in exquisitely polished songs by Quilter, in arias by Handel and in evocative songs by Schubert full of nocturnal landscapes and deep longing.
A highlight was Milhaud's "Quartre Chansons de Ronsard," settings of poems written more than four centuries ago. Milhaud, an eclectic modernist, is known, among other things, for his skilled use of jazz idioms, French pop styles and Brazilian dance rhythms in various compositions. In this piece, he evoked, and the performance conveyed, some musical styles of the French Renaissance, including florid ornamentation, musical accents reflecting word meanings, and bird imitations not only in the voice but in the piano. Kingston and Patterson clearly enjoyed the music, and so did the audience.