Wednesday, May 12, 2004

One of the nice things about living in a large urban area like the District is the infinite variety of local music. Not only do you get your choice of main events with the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera — and, soon, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — but you also can sample from smaller, lesser-known ensembles that perform off-the-beaten-path repertoire in smaller venues.

Take Festa della Voce, for example. In its sixth season, this small vocal and instrumental ensemble stages most of its concerts in an intimate neighborhood church — St. David’s in the Palisades neighborhood — and features music audiences don’t get to hear often.

This week’s concert program focuses on Italian art songs, many of which remained unpublished for decades after their composition. On tap are obscure works by famous opera composers such as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, as well as vocal compositions by the lesser-known Stefano Donaudy, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Vincenzo Davico, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

The ensemble, consisting of soprano Mary McReynolds, mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden, tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs and baritone James Rogers — all accompanied by pianists Kathryn Brake and Michael Crabill — opened and closed the concert with lively quartets from Rossini’s collection of songs titled “Peches de vieillese” (“Sins of old age”). A rare glimpse of his mature genius (he had stopped composing operas entirely by his 40th birthday, retiring to a life of leisure), these amusing tidbits show Rossini taking a more complex late-Romantic turn as a composer. The quartet’s intonation of these tricky party pieces was a little uncertain at times, possibly because of the echo effect present in the performance space, but the outcome was generally pleasing, nonetheless.

More successful was the remainder of the program, which alternated the singers as soloists. Miss Baden in particular turned in an outstanding performance of a suite of Verdi’s little-known early songs, composed around 1838. Her rich vocal gifts and precise control were most evident in her opening song, “In solitaria stanza” (“In a solitary room”), but she was impressive in the entire suite, particularly in the lilting humoresque “Stornello” (“Rhyme”) and the operatic “Deh, pietoso, oh addolorata” (Oh, with mercy, oh woman of grief”).

Mr. Burroughs and Miss McReynolds were successful in the more intimate chamber pieces of Donizetti, Bellini and Donaudy.

The highlight of the evening, however, was unquestionably Mr. Rogers’ brilliant rendition of a selection of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s quirky “Shakespeare Songs.” This composer was one of many European Jewish musicians who were forced to flee by Hitler and the onslaught of fascism.

His “Shakespeare Songs” — justifiably well-regarded by discriminating critics and soloists — are among the few of his compositions that are still performed. Altering the Bard’s dramatic verses sometimes radically, Castelnuovo-Tedesco wove complex accompaniments for his vigorous and forceful songs, all of which Mr. Rogers attacked with relish and obvious enjoyment.


WHO: Festa della Voce

WHAT: Musical Soirees

WHERE: St. David’s Church, 5150 Macomb St. NW

WHEN: Sunday at 3 p.m.

TICKETS: $25 (available at the door)

INFORMATION: Call Ticketmaster at 202/432-SEAT or visit

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