It does say something rather positive about the state of classical music that concerts now feature music by lesser known composers who were nuns, versus concerts of music by more “famous” nun composers (Hildegard, Cozzolani, etc). This once “cloistered” music has found a voice through groups like Sequentia, Tapestry, Cappella Artemisia, and specifically this past weekend with Boston’s Cappella Clausura, who performed in Newton on February 26 and at First Lutheran Church in downtown Boston on February 27. The group, joined by additional instrumentalists and members of the Concord Womens Chorus, presented nineteen of twenty-three motets from Sulpitia Cesis’ only published collection of music, the Motetti spirituali, published in Modena in 1619.
The brevity of Sulpitia Cesis’ biography is not uncommon for women who wrote music behind the cloister wall. Her story prior to entering the convent of San Geminiano (San Gimignano) in 1593 is not an uncommon one. Born to a noble family, Sulpitia became a bride of Christ, the only likely alternative to becoming a bride to an earthly suitor at the time. Further, San Geminiano was known for its musical activities and was an ideal place to host a lutenist-composer-nun.
Cappella Clausura’s website touted Sulpitia Cesis as “the female Gabrieli,” yet director Amelia LeClair noted in the program that the motets are “lovely Renaissance works despite being written in the early Baroque.” Cesis’s works tend to evoke both Palestrina and Gabrieli in a single piece. It was the motets on the program that leaned toward the former that were the most successful, primarily due to the acoustical limitations of First Lutheran, the performance I attended. The church does not easily accommodate cori spezzati singing.
The opening “Stabat mater dolorosa” was ethereal and glorious, with LeClair’s choice to omit the bass line in the opening phrase an effective incipit to the entrance of the other singers. This is definitely one of the works that sat most squarely in the Renaissance, and the light sound of the sopranos allowed the harmonic resonances to shine. The ensemble (and LeClair), sensitive to the text, effectively highlighted the text’s “crucifixi fige plagas” with forte declamation. This section of text would have likely been very meaningful for the nuns at San Geminiano, as the hymn had a long history of penitential devotion, and its overall maternal imagery no doubt would have moved many of the singers.
The first poly-choral performance on the program, “Hic est beatissimus Apostolus,” was weakened by the space and a lack of balance between choir and organ. In stark contrast to the preceding “Stabat mater,” the sopranos seemed to carry a certain vocal tightness that on occasion drove the pitch slightly flat, perhaps due to pushing against the volume of the instruments. A later Gabrieli-esque piece on the program, “Dulce nomen Jesu Christe,” which was performed solely by the Cappella Clausura singers, did not suffer from these issues and conveyed a magnificent balance of piety and musical energy. The “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel” featured the strongest group of soloists that evening, with an absolutely stunning tutti moment on “Benedictum” and very tight cadences beautifully articulated by LeClair’s precise direction.
Sometimes Cesis seemed to struggle between her Renaissance and Baroque tendencies, leaving it up to the performers to negotiate awkward transitions between sections of the text. This was the case with the “Cantemus Domino,” though LeClair and the ensemble artfully smoothed over them.
Some of the more polyphonically interesting works on the programs were the motets that bore more resemblance in texture and text to madrigals. In “Il mio più vago Sole, morto” (My loveliest Sun is dead), Singers Gail Abbey, Christina Calamaio, and Adriana Repetto conveyed the metaphorical text with a lightness of texture, allowing Cesis’ more active writing to surface. Of special mention was the sotto voce work of the two guest trombonists, William Mack Ramsey and Thomas Zajac, whose playing took on a sublime vocal quality almost inseparable from that of the singers — although they played almost flawlessly for the entire program. One of the other Italian pieces, “Peccò Signor quest’alma” (O Lord, this soul has sinned), featured extremely sensitive playing from the continuo/instrumentalist members of Cappella Clausura, Hendrik Broekman on the organ, Mai-Lan Brokeman on violone, and Catherine Liddell on theorbo. These performers also brought exciting drama to the invocation of the cross in the antiphon “O crux splendidor.”
Certainly one of the most moving Scriptural images, and one aptly conveyed by Cesis’s score, is the famous text from Matthew depicting the two Marys at the tomb of Christ. This “Maria Magdalena et altera Maria” featured the considerable vocal talents of Roberta Andersen and Gail Abbey in a sensitive, well-balanced duet. It was particularly well programmed contrast to the “Sub Tuum Praesidium” that followed, which interspersed rhythmically active sections with achingly beautiful moments of Renaissance polyphony embodying Marian clemency. The diction in this particular piece was very well executed, unlike some of the other works, particularly “Ecce Ego” where the high tessitura of the top line detracted from the text being conveyed in the lower voices.
This was challenging repertoire to sing in the acoustical confinement of First Lutheran; it provided a beautiful chamber for the pieces featuring six to eight singers but seemed only to muddy the waters of the more involved polyphonic repertoire. While the general balance between singers, instruments, and divided choruses was quite good, there were some issues of stridency in one or two soprano voices that probably could have been mediated by a reduction in volume. Both Cappella Clausura and the Concord Womens Chorus boast some beautiful lower voices, and I felt these were sometimes unduly obscured by the volume of the upper voices. That said, the cadences of each phrase and each piece were nothing short of exquisite. There were many divine moments of perfect sonority that resonated even without acoustical help from the church. The ensemble as a whole brought elegance, grace, and pathos to a repertoire that will hopefully continue to reach far beyond the cloistered walls of canonized music history.