A little bit of Renaissance pageantry came to Jamaica Plain the other night. En route to the Cappella Clausura concert , “Gloria: A Renaissance Christmas Pageant,” at the First Church in Jamaica Plain on Dec. 20, I encountered a stream of candle-bearing pilgrims, processing from the darkened front of the church to the accompaniment of tolling church bells; it was the congregation holding a peace vigil, but it felt suddenly like one was transported to another time.
This feeling continued upon entering the hall of First Church. It is a spacious, plaster and beamed auditorium, with a balcony and stained glass windows, which could easily pass for a castle banqueting hall. A perfect setting, then, for the event about to unfold.
Cappella Clausura is a small chorus of altos and sopranos accompanied by early instruments, which specializes in the performance of music of women composers, mostly from the remarkably fertile period of the 17th century, when number of cloistered nuns created a largely unknown but impressive body of work for women’s voice and instrumental accompaniment. They also champion works by living women. The program provided useful notes to learn something of these women and their music.
From this literature, Music Director Amelia LeClair has strung a fine set of pearls, music which illustrates the life of the Virgin Mary — her birth, the annunciation, the birth of Jesus, … It creates a real celebration of her life, which would be entirely in keeping with the worship and environment of the cloister. Adding to the pageantry was the tastefully elegant dances performed by CreationDance. This intergenerational, sacred dance company provided just the right visual and prayerful interpretation of the music. Adult dancers played Mary herself and angels and archangels, while younger dancers enacted shepherds to whom the good news was announced. Oversized puppets, hand-held and directed by dancers, represented the Three Kings. Costumes were stylized Renaissance dress. The whole had a visual appearance of an illuminated manuscript or tapestry.
Of the music itself, the most important fact seems to be that unless you knew it was a program of solely women’s compositions, you couldn’t “tell” – the quality of counterpoint, style, and melody was as high as their male contemporaries. The work of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani had a feel of Monteverdi, while still being very personal. My personal favorite became O viridissima virga by Hildegarde von Bingen, transcribed by LeClair. The music seemed to illustrate an expansive interior landscape, which would be entirely in keeping with the wide interests of this learned mystic. The sole contemporary work, Magnificat by Patricia Van Ness, fit seamlessly into the rest of the program, with a continuous drone underpinning the frequently unison choral passages. The text was “in timeless eternity Archangels Gabriel and Raphael accompany this very special mystery of life and God’s presence from generation to generation.” In a way, this could sum up the entire program: when denied outlets for their creativity in other realms, women still create timeless beauty and express themselves, generation to generation. Thankfully, Cappella Clausura is illuminating the glory that was hidden for centuries.