- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

If you love lieder, the glory of classic Viennese song, multiply that times four, and that's how much you'll enjoy Calla's Festa della Voce, a vocal chamber ensemble performing this month at the Austrian Embassy.

The Washington-based group of operatic singers actually performs music from all eras, but it was so convincingly Schubertian that the embassy deemed it suitably representative of Vienna and invited it to perform in the embassy's airy auditorium, accompanied by an impressive German-made Bosendorfer grand piano.

In its program Wednesday evening, to be repeated next Friday, the quartet started out, appropriately, with songs composed by Franz Schubert when he was a teen-ager in the early 1800s. They seemed to pick up where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart left off in his lyrical operatic quartets, which can be as intimate in their way as chamber music despite being written for full-scale musical theater. Mozart's sometimes personal and soul-searching arias, duets and quartets, full of poetry and pathos, may in fact be the true beginnings of the great lieder tradition, although surely Schubert was its greatest and most prolific practitioner.

As befitting the great romantic classicist, who was born and died in Vienna, the Calla quartet was balanced and well-blended in its rendition of four songs spanning the composer's short lifetime. In a way, the opening pieces written for quartet were simply prelude to the best part of the program song sets by the individual singers, each of whom is an accomplished soloist. Somehow lieder, perhaps because it is the most intimate, personal form of music, expresses itself best through the solo performer.

The Calla group typically sandwiches sets highlighting the talents of its individual singers between pieces written for quartet, a practice that is both intelligent and gratifying because it gives listeners a chance to savor and contrast each singer's strong points. The strengths exhibited by the soloists, in turn, also point up the excellence of the group as a whole.

Peter Joshua Burroughs, the group's tenor, was capable and versatile, whether tripping the light fantastic through the woods in a playful tune, pensively exhaling a night song, sighing about an unrequited love or crowing confidently about love found and possessed. His five pieces, set to poems by Goethe, showcased Schubert at his noblest and most lyrical.

Aaron Silverman, the group's baritone, was appropriately somber in rendering a set of four songs written in the last year of Schubert's life to poems by Heinrich Heine. The sublimely troubled pieces, dwelling on death, loss and isolation, portrayed Atlas' dramatic railing at the implacable Fates, as well as what appears to be the composer's own plaintive pleading with ghosts of loved ones who perished and his own goulish, and perhaps sickly, reflection in a mirror.

Soprano Mary McReynolds, the founder of the group, had an impressive stage presence and added a welcome touch of spring. She was wearing a delicately pink ensemble not unlike the blossoms seen this time of year. Her soft and whimsical voice did justice to Schubert's two acclaimed Suleika pieces, written for one of the premier sopranos of his day. Miss Reynolds is a virtuoso who can disarmingly deliver a technically demanding phrase as lightly as a feather brushing the cheek.

By contrast, Jessi Baden, the group's mezzo-soprano, gave a powerful performance of five pieces written by Johannes Brahms, perhaps the last great practitioner of the lieder. Her "Death in the Cool Night" on a Heine poem was haunting and moving.

Miss Baden shone brightly through the doleful Brahms songs, which seemed to be tailored for her resonant and at times darkly sonorous voice, expressing the sorrowful thoughts of a lonely maiden, a world-weary soul, and the bittersweet delights of love on a gentle May night. The story-song "Of Eternal Love," which Miss Baden rendered with passion, left you breathless and amazed. Some have called it Brahms' masterpiece, and she certainly was equal to the task.

The program ended with Brahms' rarely performed Liebeslieder, a fast-paced set of 18 songs for four voices written in the composer's sixth year in Vienna. The pieces not only are unusual because of the atypical combination of voices and four-hand piano, ably played by pianists Kathryn Brake and Michael Crabill, but they also represent Brahms' attempt at combining one art form, the lieder, with another, the waltz, which was all the rage at the time.

The marriage of forms was a bit clumsy at times and clearly was not made in heaven, as evidenced by the composer's abandoning it afterward. The easy delicacy and deftness of Vienna's waltzes never seemed to take root in Brahms' personality, despite his years in the city, but Liebeslieder nevertheless offered moments of sheer musical pleasure and perfection, as in "The Small, Pretty Bird Took Flight" and "On the Banks of the Danube." Two alternating female and male duets about the birds and the waves were captivating, and an all-too-short nightingale song left you longing for more of the same.

By the end of the set, Brahms clearly had left the dance floor employing the waltz's characteristic three-four time only symbolically in pieces that were either too fast or too slow to be danced but he had found his real footing, and the set delivers a tangled emotional and musical palette that true romantics will adore.

To their credit, the singers clearly were having fun throughout despite the reputed difficulty of the Brahms pieces. By the time they delivered an encore of Gypsy songs by Brahms, everyone in the group was grinning. The sparse but appreciative audience left smiling, as well.


***

WHAT: Festa della Voce

WHERE: Austrian Embassy, 3524 International Court NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. May 17

TICKETS: $30 general admission and $25 for students and seniors

PHONE: 202/432-SEAT, 410/481-SEAT or 703/573-SEAT

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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