For one who never reads music reviews, I had to ask myself why I was now reviewing a beautiful concert given by the Cappella Clausura last Sunday evening, May 10, at the Grace Church in Salem. The answer to that question (more than intimated by the word “beautiful” in the previous sentence) is that I believe in reviews which advance the fortunes of groups that deserve to be heard often and by a growing audience. Such is the case of the Cappella Clausura, a women’s chamber chorus founded and directed by Amelia LeClair, who has worked tirelessly in the last five years to bring to the public’s attention music written steadily by women for 12 centuries.
Of course, we are aware of many women’s names in composition since 1900; and then there is the famous medieval figure, Hildegard von Bingen (a number of whose chants, by the way, were rapturously sung by this group in an earlier concert this year). But between Hildegard and Lili Boulanger, what works by women do we know? That the Cappella Clausura should characterize itself as “performing 12 centuries of new music” is no exaggeration, since the pieces appearing on the Cappella’s programs – no matter from what century – are 95 percent of the time completely new to us. Of the six composers represented in last Sunday’s concert, I had not heard of four, much less heard a note of their music. And I call myself a music historian.
Most importantly, the pieces of the four “unknowns” (which comprised the first half of the program) have nothing of the amateurish about them, despite the fact that all four composers would – officially, at least – have to be styled “amateurs,” their actual profession being nuns attached to various convents of 17th-century Italy. Many interesting questions could be asked about what music these cloistered women were exposed to, how much time they were able to devote to composing, and by what means they eventually got their works published. But if the pieces on the program are any indication, they were, in one way or another, intimately connected to the developments of their own day. The Pecco Signor of Sulpitia Cesis could easily be taken for an eight-part motet of Giovanni Gabrieli; the vocal duo, O quam bonus es, by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani has all the earmarks of mid-century Monteverdi; and the multi-sectional Sonata duodecima of Isabella Leonarda is right in the trio-sonata tradition of Legrenzi and Stradella. Moreover, the material is masterfully handled. In the Cesis Pecco Signor the composer arranges the 8-voice texture most artfully, making dramatic points with wide spacings and dialoguings between high and low lines. The sporadic sustained notes of the highest line are particularly striking, and the sopranos of the Cappella Clausura made the most of these moments in terms of both the charm and intensity of their sound. Cozzolani’s duo, dating from 1642 – the same year as Monteverdi’s operatic miracle, The Coronation of Poppea, – is also a study in contrasts, predominantly rhythmic. The two soloists, Sipra Agrawal and Jacque Wilson, negotiated the changes from slow duple sections to lilting triple meters with great elegance; and when they came to the thrice-stated chromatically-inflected cadence setting the words “blessed death” at the end, one imagined hearing Poppea bidding her farewells to Nero after a protracted night in each other’s arms. Like all the texts set by the nuns, this one treats of the typical themes of Jesus, Mary, and the Cross. The music of mid-century Italy, in short, seems to make no distinction between sacred and profane love.
In the only instrumental work of the first half, Barbara Englesberg, violin, Mai-Lin Broekman, gamba, and Catherine Liddell, theorbo, with Hendrik Broekman providing the organ continuo, gave a spirited reading of Leonarda’s Sonata duodecima. A single instrumental work was represented on the second half of the program as well, the Prelude and Chaconne for harpsichord of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. One of Louis XIV’s court musicians in later 17th-century France, Jacquet de la Guerre is a figure familiar for quite some time now to musicologists, if not to the general public. In remarks he made just before playing the piece, Hendrik Broekman said that the king greatly admired Jacquet’s talents and, recognizing her unique position in a world dominated by male artists, did much to protect her politically. Broekman also spoke of the composer’s adventurous way with the Chaconne, in which toward the end she unexpectedly leaves the normal triple-time behind for a quick duple-time finish. Most surprising of all are the dartings back and forth between major and minor mode, which do not wait necessarily for the articulations between sections but break into the middles of sections as well. When he came to performing the Chaconne, Broekman let these points reveal themselves rather than forcing them, playing with unusual grace and fluidity.
If the first paragraph of this article may have given the impression that Cappella Clausura is solely a women’s chorus, the comments just above show that instruments can participate more than incidentally. Still, the spotlight in the second half of the concert was on singing, the lion’s share of this part of the program being devoted to three solo cantatas by Jacquet de la Guerre: Susanne, Esther, and Judith. Only excerpts of the first two were presented, while the last was done complete. Perhaps to compensate for the truncation of Susanne and Esther, someone in the Cappella Clausura had the fantasy of adding a dance element to the performance of these two. Cantatas, like oratorios, are designed for the concert room, not the theater; and so Jacquet’s pieces, when first performed, were presumably just sung and played. But given the love of 17th-century France – and especially of its king – for dance entertainments, Helena Froelich’s choreography and impersonation of the two heroines would no doubt have met with Louis XIV’s approval. Her whimsical disrobing in the Susanne were well within the bounds of propriety and her steps and mimed gestures in general seemed (to this unpracticed eye, at least) within the bounds of 17th-century style. It was probably a wise decision not to mime Judith, since decapitations, if they have to be considered at all, are better heard about than seen.
Which brings us to the fact that the women who are at the center of Jacquet’s cantatas – those, in other words, who sing the solo vocal parts – are never the heroines themselves but rather the narrators telling the stories and moralizing on the consequences. Even so, the quality of voice of the members of the ensemble who sang the respective solos seemed exactly right for the protagonist in question – the opulence of Emily Jaworski in Susanne, the warmth of Sudie Marcuse in Esther, and the brightness of Junko Watanabe in Judith. Since Judith was given in its entirety, Watanabe had the longest role and took full advantage of its dramatic contrasts, offering tenderness one moment, decisiveness the next. And drama was not restricted to the voices, for Jacquet writes an extended passage – “Sommeil” – for the instruments alone at the point in the story when Holofernes falls asleep, thus giving Judith the opportunity to lop off his head. The four instrumentalists managed here a hushed, haunting pianissimo more easily produced by 30 strings with mutes.
Examples such as the last one and the Pecco signor at the beginning of the concert – where nine women singers supported by gamba, theorbo, and portative organ successfully brought off the grandeur of an eight-part motet in the Venetian mold – show what can be done with limited forces when you know what you’re doing. The Cappella Clausura and its programming radiate good judgment and imagination; above all, there is the dedication of purpose which director LeClair, one feels, has transmitted to each member of the ensemble, resulting in a rare cohesiveness.
If music lovers are looking for new musical experiences performed with exuberance and authority, they will find them here. And one doesn’t even have to wait for Cappella Clausura’s next season. The group is giving a special, admission-free concert on Tuesday, June 9 at noon in the Old South Church, Copley Square. This event, presented in conjunction with the Boston Early Music Festival, will repeat the program that included the chants of Hildegard von Bingen done earlier this year.