In a concert program entitled “Mistress: A celebration of Mistress Anne Bradstreet’s 400th Birthday,” vocal ensemble Cappella Clausura assembled a diverse program of 21st- and 17th-century works honoring the quadricentennial of the first poet to be published in America (by most accounts). Presented at The Parish of the Messiah, Newton on March 17, the evening featured new settings by living composers, Dorothy Crawford and Hilary Tann, as well as a fine mélange of works by Bradstreet’s European contemporaries, Barbara Strozzi and Isabella Leonarda. It is in fact the mission of the ensemble to exclusively perform works by women across the entire span of western music: a practice that undoubtedly helps to steer the group away from the over-performed male-dominated common repertoire. Admittedly, the group focuses on the Italian early-Baroque, when it was quite common for women to be published and achieve a considerable level of fame, despite other drawbacks. (Women in the 18th and 19th Century French and German traditions are in much higher need of championing!) But what made the program particularly gripping was the perspective and depth offered by the contrast of music composed nearly four centuries apart. Though the mingling of early and new music isn’t entirely uncommon, when it’s done well, there’s something about the result that highlights the universal expressive force of vocal music.
The first half featured two pieces by Crawford. The first, Naushon (2011), is one of a set of four choral songs in memory of Christopher and Dana Reeve. (Christopher Reeve was the composer’s nephew.) The piece is deeply personal, as the text was also written by another family member, circa WW II. While this piece was not related in any way to Bradstreet’s works or time, it opened the concert with a sense of nostalgia; scalar figures rise and fall over tranquil harmonies. Scored for SSA, Naushon was sung by the women of the group with spot-on intonation. The affect of the piece (and its brevity) left me wanting to hear the other three songs in the set.
Crawford’s Portrait of Anne Bradstreet took a vastly different stylistic approach. The two poems set in this collection were also disparate. To My Dear and Loving Husband portrays Bradstreet’s contentment with her Puritan life with her extraordinarily wealthy husband, whereas Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666 depicts the fear, sorrow, and reflection of the author as her North Andover home famously burned to the ground. The piece opened with spoken monologues with instrumental interludes, featuring guest instrumentalists on recorder, violin, baroque guitar, and harpsichord. Soloist Adriana Repetto’s performance was convincing and inspired, both in the spoken and sung portions of the piece. But the pseudo-Baroque stylings of the musical interludes and some of the accompanying music were generally hackneyed, twisting the historical conventions of the ensemble only on the surface, failing to offer an interesting commentary on the tradition or even to expose that tradition in an interesting way (the composer cites “expressionist touches” in her notes on the piece, but even these were under-motivated). Some of the same sentiment was expressed when this piece was performed and reviewed in BMInt by Sudeep Agarwala last season (see the review here). Much of the piece is salvaged in the final movement, where the composer more persuasively summons the shock and frantic emotion of the poet’s despair through driving, syncopated rhythms, poignantly reflecting on thematic material from earlier in the piece.
The accompanying pieces by Isabella Lenoarda (Beatus vir, Psalm 112, and Magnificat, both op. 19) highlighted the distinct, albeit idiosyncratic, music of the most prolific of Ursuline convent composers. Beatus vir is more cohesive and consistent, a truly awesome work. And it exists, like the more temperamental Magnificat, in an aesthetic that is truly Leonarda’s own.
Representing a completely different aesthetic of the time, Barbara Strozzi’s madrigals are exemplary blends of sincere inspiration and phenomenally well-honed craft that soar far beyond the majority of composers of her generation composing in the “Seconda prattica” tradition, male or female. Director Amelia LeClair deserves recognition for choosing some of the best examples Strozzi has to offer, and the ensemble performed each of the madrigals with ardor and craftsmanship. It is no surprise to see that Cappella Clausura is well-acquainted with the works of these two great composers; the pieces, in particular Leonarda’s Beatus vir and Strozzi’s Con le belle and L’Amante modesto, were performed with the veracity of scholars and the zeal of musicians who genuinely love this music.
Hilary Tann’s settings of Bradstreet’s Contemplations stood out as the real zenith of the evening. “Contemplations 8, 9” covered a wide range of stylistic terrain. The piece opens with rolling, rhythmic textures over pentatonic harmonies, building into a massive sound that eluding the chorus’s actual size. Predictably, the small portions of Bradstreet’s texts in Latin dwindled to chant-like monophony, and in the first piece ended in a lilting coda over “Praise ye him, all his angels.” Somehow, the integration of all of these influences worked well, particularly in those two “Contemplations.” “Contemplations 21, 22” had some more jarring moments and ended a bit awkwardly. But both pieces showed the composer’s ability to work freely with a text: never reciting the poem merely from start to finish, but bending and shaping the text in the way that best ties it to an intriguing musical narrative that captures its essence. The pieces showed an immense command over the compositional possibilities of a vocal ensemble and were a worthy conclusion to a stellar program.
The program will be repeated this Saturday and Sunday, at Cambridge’s University Lutheran in Harvard Square and First Church in Jamaica Plain, respectively. I would highly recommend making it to one of the performances, particularly for the exceptional realizations of the Strozzi madrigals and to acquaint yourselves with the outstanding new pieces by Crawford and Tann.