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Gallery of Delights, Interrupted

CanalettoThe National Gallery of Art, indisputably a major (and sometimes under-appreciated) venue for the presentation of music both light and serious, is experimenting with mid-day concerts during the week. While not unprecedented, this is rather different from the long-standing Sunday afternoon Gallery concerts.

The current series is being presented Wednesdays at 12:10 p.m., through May, and is linked with two current exhibitions: The Poetry of Light, Venetian Drawings; and Master Drawings from the Woodner Collections, a diverse and eclectic array spanning many centuries.

This Wednesday, Venice was the principal focus, with a combination lecture and performance by Stephen Ackert, head of the Gallery's music department. Mr. Ackert's instrument was the harpsichord, indeed one in his own possession, built by Frank Hubbard (Boston) in 1980, and convincingly shown by Mr. Ackert to be modeled on an instrument depicted in Jan Steen's painting Actions Prove the Man -- not to be seen in our National Gallery, being in the collection of London's own National Gallery. The Hubbard instrument has a fine, clean-not-clangy sound, consistent throughout the registers.

Jan Steen, Actions Prove the Man, National Gallery, LondonIt also sounded well under Mr. Ackert's able and fleet fingers, as he presented a short program ranging from the Renaissance (a pavana by Dalza) through the late Baroque (Domenico Scarlatti's C major sonata, K. 461). Stops along the way included genre pieces (Andrea Gabrieli's Pour un plaisir) and Alessandro Scarlatti's Toccata settima. Stephen Ackert was fine in the simpler pieces and good in the more complex and later works, lacking only that extra edge of flair and imagination that can bring the harpsichord to life. The Scarlatti sonata in particular offers more than was realized by Mr. Ackert, but Scarlatti's own imagination triumphs in even an 'okay' performance.

Indeed one would have liked much more music: the program was kept short by Mr. Ackert's interlacing lectures about the music, and its relation to contemporaraneous paintings such as Titian's Venus, and the aforementioned Steen. Mr. Ackert is equally adept and charming as lecturer and only occasionally fumbled the slide-sequence presenting the pictures. Here the good news ends. Mr. Ackert's body-mike, used for his lecturing, broadcast static at odd moments during his keyboard performances, disrupting the musical flow. Further, the doors to the West Gallery Lecture Hall, where these mid-day concerts are presented, were left open by the Gallery staff (on purpose, reasons unclear), letting in loud door-bangs from the corridor outside (the Gallery has strong, heavy doors) and noise from the comings-and-goings of some of the less patient ladies in the audience. All of this proved serious distraction from a nice artistic experience.

There are two more programs in this Wednesday series at the Gallery: May 24, Piffaro, a Philadelphia-based Renaissance band; and May 31, Ars Lyrica Houston with Melissa Givens, soprano, presenting a diverse Baroque program ranging from Monteverdi to Bach's G Major Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord. Go, enjoy, and get there on time -- Mr. Ackert's dual performances drew an overflow crowd. While you're at it, insist that door be closed.

1 comment:

Mark Barry said...

I don't think I've ever seen so many drawings at one time! It was a challenge but I did my best. The Woodner collection has some beauties, Fragonard, Ingres, and Goya. The Venetian exhibit got a little tired in the middle but ended well with the Sargents.